Commercial enterprise is entering the US Air Force model for readiness in flight operations, US Indo-Pacific Command announced 9 November 2023, stating that the Air Force had completed its first commercial air-to-air refuelling this year. 

“Just this past Summer, a commercial refuelling company was able to refuel an Air Force E-3 and an RC-135 in coordination with Air Combat Command during an exercise,” said Lt. Col. Curtis Holtman, Pacific Air Forces air mobility operations chief. “We’re expanding that aperture in PACAF, and identified a proof-of-concept employment to refuel fighter aircraft during exercise Commando Sling 23.”

“If we can use commercial air refuelling to cover the point A to point B movements for exercise participation across unit readiness training, then it frees up our warfighter tanker fleet to be ready to respond for emerging contingency requirements,” said Holtman. “This is another mechanism that we can leverage to increase our warfighter readiness.”

The exercise took place during a flight from San Air Base in the Republic of Korea to Singapore, with a commercial KDC-10 refuelling plane supporting F-16 Fighting Falcons.

During the exercise the KDC-10 was also demonstrating that the commercial refuelling plane could simultaneously be used for its airlift capacity. To that end, the KDC-10 was also carrying 40 passengers and ‘four pallet positions worth of cargo’, said Holtman.

The KDC-10 global airtanker from Evergreen International Aviation and Omega Air is a modified commercially available DC-10 airliner, equipping it with a hose and rouge and a centreline boom refuelling system. The KDC-10 can carry 112,000kg (247,000lbs) of fuel for refuelling plus up to 45,400kg (100,000lbs) of freight or passenger payload. By the end of the exercise, according to Holtman, commercial refuelling aircraft will have refuelled three type of airframe: F-15Cs, F-16s, and F-22s. 

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Although this is a new capability that the Air Force can leverage for maintaining mission readiness, as the Indo-Pacific Command release states, both the Navy and Marine Corps have been using commercial air-to-air refuelling for almost 20 years.