U.S. Air Force Commandos Practice Refueling, Rearming F-15s
'Rapid Eagle' frees fighters from big bases
On July 26, 2017, U.S. Air Force commandos in the United Kingdom practiced deploying to an austere airfield to quickly refuel and rearm F-15C fighters. It was the first time that Air Force special operators and their MC-130 transports had teamed up with F-15C fighters at a so-called “Forward Arming and Refueling Point,” or FARP.
The exercise, which the Air Force dubbed “Rapid Eagle,” expands on the similar “Rapid Raptor” concept involving F-22 stealth fighters — and could help the flying branch sustain combat sorties during some future war with, say, Russia.
Rapid Eagle involved three separate wings — the 48th Fighter Wing at the Royal Air Force base at Lakenheath and the 352nd Special Operations Wing and 100th Air Refueling Wing, both at RAF Mildenhall.
Two MC-130Js from the 352nd SOW flew to Lakenheath, picked up maintenance crews and ammunition, returned to Mildenhall to drop them off and then continued to an undisclosed location — the FARP — to refuel and rearm four Lakenheath F-15Cs alongside personnel from the 100th ARW.
Two U.S. Air Force 352d Special Operations Squadron members assist with airfield security while a 67th Special Operations Squadron loadmaster finishes unloading weapons crews and supplies from an MC-130J during Rapid Eagle. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luke Milano
“This was the first ever FARP between any MC-130 variant and an F-15C,” Lt. Col. Jason Zumwalt from the 48th Fighter Wing told an Air Force reporter. “This capability could provide improved flexibility for future operations.”
With fewer than 2,000 fighters concentrated at a small number of large bases, the branch’s combat forces are vulnerable to attack. Commando raids or ballistic-missile barrages on just a few facilities — in particular, Lakenheath in the United Kingdom and Kadena in Japan — could destroy a significant portion of America’s fighters and limit the operations of the survivors.
Since at least 2008, the Air Force has been developing procedures for spreading out its fighters during wartime. The 3rd Wing in Alaska led the effort with its Rapid Raptor scheme, which the wing first tested in 2013.
A Rapid Raptor package normally includes four of the twin-engine F-22s plus a single C-17 airlifter. The C-17 carries all the maintenance personnel, weapons and spare parts that the Raptors would need to fly and fight from a remote Pacific airstrip. The fighters in a package are supposed to be able to move, get ready and begin fighting within 24 hours.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Sequan Gill, 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron forward arming and refueling point technician, runs out a fuel hose to an F-15C during Rapid Eagle. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luke Milano
Rapid Raptor caught on. The Florida-based 95th Fighter Squadron adopted the 3rd Wing’s deployment procedures and, in April 2016, sent a pair of F-22s on a quick-fire tour of Eastern Europe as part of the U.S. military plan for deterring Russia. In March 2017, a C-17 supported two F-22s on a mission to Australia that included a FARP-like component. On the ground, the F-22s refueled from the C-17’s wing tanks.
Air Force officials have long promised to adapt Raptor Raptor to other warplane types. “We’re working on ‘Rapid Next,’” Gen. Herbert Carlisle, then commander of the Air Combat Command, said in September 2015. “If we have U.S. air power show up in places and at times people don’t anticipate, that has a great effect for assuring friends and partners and has a deterring effect on potential adversaries and aggressors.”
In early 2017, the Air Force lumped the “Rapid” exercises under a single concept it calls Agile Combat Employment. With Rapid Eagle, the warplane types now included in the ACE construct include the F-15C, the F-22, the C-17 and the MC-130. The Air Force has expressed interest in adding the HH-60 rescue helicopter, the F-16 and the new KC-46 tanker.