U.S. aerial tankers have flown more than 200 missions this year to fuel French airpower supporting Paris’ intervention against al Qaeda linked extremists in Mali.
The aid underscores NATO’s reliance on U.S. military capabilities to stage even their own unilateral operations.
Air Force Times reported the U.S. Air Force’s 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, forward deployed to Morón Air Base, Spain, from RAF Mildenhall, in Suffolk, England, has offloaded more than eight million pounds of fuel in 204 separate missions in support of the French Air Force as of May 15.
The U.S. air-tanker workhorses, KC-135s, began their assistance to the French on Jan. 27, U.S. Air Forces in Europe spokesman Capt. William Russell told the publication, just days after the intervention in Mali began.
At the request of the Malian president, the French deployed almost 4,000 troops, and recaptured the country’s vast desert north from extremist fighters with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s North African affiliate, and local Islamist militias.
The French are now beginning to pull out their forces, ceding their vital role in support of Mali’s fragile government to an African multi-national security force, although 1,000 will remain beyond the end of the year, with no specific timetable for their return.
But French forces could not have gotten to Mali, nor would they have had air support, without U.S. air transport and refueling capabilities.
Through February, the Air Force flew 47 sorties of C-17 cargo planes, moving 1,200 tons of equipment and supplies along with 975 passengers into Mali.
“We recognize our role as tankers will always be to support others,” unit commander Lt. Col. Timothy Kuehne said in a release. “Our combined operations with the French in Mali have given us a chance to prove our ability to contribute to anti-terrorism operations led by our partners around the world.”
France and Britain both have an independent in-air refueling capability, said retired Lt. Gen. Richard Y. “Dick” Newton, former director of the U.S. Air Force staff and now executive vice-president of the non-profit Air Force Association.
But, especially for missions far outside of Europe, “there does remain a reliance on U.S. air refueling capabilities which cannot be matched by any other air force,” he added in an email to The Washington Times.