U.S. Air Force tankers moved to NATO’s Eastern Flank, strengthen collective defense

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jose Davis
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air Forces Africa Public Affairs

U.S.-based tanker aircraft began working at their new primary location in Poland, March 10, as part of a U.S. Air Forces in Europe activity called Copper Arrow, demonstrating U.S. European Command’s efforts to bolster security on NATO’s eastern flank with forward stationed and deployed forces.

Copper Arrow is a ‘Total Force’ initiative, involving U.S. Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard tankers from the continental U.S., intended to support air refueling capability across the U.S. European Command theater.     

“Copper Arrow is a great example of rapid access to the Reserve Component to deploy downrange at a moment’s notice to meet the strategic goals in the U.S. European Command’s area of operations,” said Col. Timothy Foery, U.S. Air Force Reserve Advisor to the commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA. “Our U.S. tankers’ interaction and integration with our NATO Allies are a clear demonstration of how we value our partnerships and the importance of enhancing our interoperability.

“Look at any image of a KC-135 refueling a Polish F-16 or a KC-46 refueling a Finnish F/A-18, and you immediately understand what we mean by the word ‘interoperability.’”

Previously based out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Copper Arrow’s move to its new main operating location at Powidz Air Base, Poland, as Detachment 1, also signifies U.S. European Command’s ability to rapidly deploy large combat-credible forces and equipment throughout Europe.

Copper Arrow brings non-Active Duty tankers from all over the continental U.S. to Europe through the European Deterrence Initiative, which funds operations and initiatives across the theater. Units from the U.S. voluntarily send their tankers and assets to Europe to support USAFE operations.  

“These CONUS-based tankers travel with Air Reserve Component members who voluntarily commit to rotations in the European AOR,” said Col. Gary Dodge, Air National Guard advisor to the commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA. “As non-Active Duty servicemembers, they voluntarily support this endeavor while spending time away from their civilian careers and their families.”

The 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, coordinates all facets of Copper Arrow. From vetting applicants to ensuring positions are filled, they accept tactical responsibilities of these tankers and coordinate Command and Control for the tankers in operational missions.

Copper Arrow can be supported by KC-135 Stratotankers, KC-10 Extenders, or the U.S. Air Force’s newest tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, from both the Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve Command.

“Our U.S. Air Force presence in Europe provides EUCOM with the strategic assets vital to meet its NATO commitment to respond to threats against our Allies,” said Maj. Gen. Joel Carey, USAFE-AFAFRICA director of operations, strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “Operations like Copper Arrow provide us that valuable tanker support that enhances the readiness necessary to respond to any potential challenge in the region.”

U.S. European Command continues to adjust posture as conditions evolve in Europe, leveraging a mix of both forward stationed and deployed forces, consulting closely with NATO Allies on the appropriate collective posture of defense and deterrence. At the NATO summit last summer in Madrid, Spain, President Biden announced the U.S. was working in concert with Allies on a number of enduring posture enhancements, as well as enhancements of rotational forces.

“For the first time in history, U.S. forces will be permanently stationed on the eastern flank of Europe, in Poland,” said Mark Brzezinski, U.S. Ambassador to Poland. “Just think of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and General Pulaski and others and think of the 10,000 plus American soldiers and airmen, who are all on Polish bases today.

“Americans have sacrificed for Polish freedom and Poles have sacrificed for American freedom. Today, America and Poland share the same freedoms.”

Constant training activities and enduring posture enhancements, like Copper Arrow, performed regularly across the Euro-Atlantic area, improve the overall cohesion of NATO Allies and ensure NATO can cooperate closely with important partners.

In the coming months, 19 different U.S.-based tanker units are slated to come out to Poland to support Copper Arrow operations on NATO’s eastern flank, with several planned operations supporting strictly NATO activities.

Recently, a KC-46 Pegasus from the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command’s 931st Air Refueling Wing, primarily stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, refueled Finnish F/A-18s, April 13, 2023. The aircraft flew from their deployed location at Powidz, Poland and seamlessly integrated with the Finnish Air Force.

"The U.S. Air Force tanker presence here in Poland helps bolster NATO's defense on the eastern flank," said Polish 3rd Airlift Base Commander, Brig. Gen. Wojciech Pikuła. "We value our strong and cooperative friendship with the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, centered on shared values, defense, safety and security in the region.”

Air Reserve Component tankers have deployed to the USAFE-AFAFRICA Area of Responsibility as part of Copper Arrow since 2016.

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