There's plenty of articles explaining how in‑air refuelling works from a technical point of view, and this is not what I'm after.

What I'm struggling to understand is what's the point to begin with.

"To extend the range"

Yes but they extend the range how exactly?

If you go from A to B through R, you either have the range to go straight from A to B (which is not the case apparently), or you need to refuel when you approach R, which is halfway.

But this implies that you already have a base in R, with a tanker available.

So, if you already need to have a base in R, and it needs to be protected… what's the point then? Can't the operation just start from R instead of starting from A?

"Yeah but I don't have fighters ready in R"

Ok cool, so why doesn't your enemy attacks R, which is unprotected, preventing you from refuelling in the first place?

There has to be something I'm missing, what is it?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Related - aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/12671/… $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Oct 12, 2021 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ The British RAF developed the first dedicated military aerial refueling system, for the top secret Lancaster task force that was created as a backstop to drop the atomic bombs in case the B-29 modification program was a failure. Absent the modified B-29s, the Lanc was the only aircraft in the Allied air forces that could carry Fat Man and Little Boy. But of course it didn't have the range, so a tanker mother ship was developed and tested and would have allowed them to make the trip from China. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Oct 12, 2021 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ But what if there is no "R"? $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2021 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ Take a look at the Black Buck missions that the RAF undertook as part of the 1982 Falklands War - two bombers, 11 tankers, 6,600 nautical miles, one base. Without refuelling, those missions could not happen. The tankers refuelled each other and the bombers to get them on target. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Black_Buck $\endgroup$
    – Moo
    Oct 13, 2021 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ Consider when “R” is in the middle of the ocean. Or multiple points in a chain across an ocean. Carriers are only so big (no bombers), they take a long time to get into position, and they’re rather attractive targets if within non-refueled range of the enemy. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Oct 14, 2021 at 1:17

6 Answers 6


Tankers have a much bigger range than fighter jets and can carry far more fuel, and can also work in tandem. See Operation Black Buck for an exteme example of using air to air refueling to increase your operational capability.

Tankers also let other aircraft loiter in the area longer than they could, otherwise. See, for example, tankers being launched as part of domestic quick reaction operations in the UK.

There's also other extreme examples such as the SR71 which didn't take off with its full payload of fuel to reduce stress on the brakes and tires during takeoff and also ensure it could successfully take off should one engine fail. Even modern fighters may not be able to be fully fueled in some configurations and even bombers may be range limited in the same way.

From reading your post, I think your primary fallacy is the assumption tankers must be available in R. This isn't true at all, the tankers might well be based with the aircraft they serve or nearby. They just have far larger fuel stores. R doesn't have to be a base, or even exist in literal terms - plenty of refueling simply happens en route, not as a diversion.

It should be said that air to air refueling is a well planned, and well orchestrated concept and can be something of a dance with tankers refueling tankers, and switching onto station etc. It's not as simple as just having a tankers floating about.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Didn't some versions of the Harrier also have to take off without a full fuel load if fully armed and operating in VTOL mode? $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 13, 2021 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ For example, the KC-10 tanker has a loaded range of 3800nmi, while the F-18 has a loaded range of 1200nmi and a combat range of 400nmi. The KC-10 carries about 36 times the amount of fuel that an F-18 can. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Oct 13, 2021 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ It might be worth adding a point of why the fighters don't just have larger fuel tanks. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2021 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ A bomber's mission is bombing and it carries bombs. A tanker's mission is fueling and it carries fuel. $\endgroup$
    – hobbs
    Oct 13, 2021 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ For a real-life example of this, "point R" for the evacuation of Kabul was out over the Gulf of Oman. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Oct 13, 2021 at 21:09

Tankers do not need to be based at point R... they can and often travel quite far to refuel other airplanes.

Why not base tankers at point R?

  • They are considered high value airborne assets (like AWACS). Too valuable to lose this capability to attack.
  • Unlike tactical aircraft, they often lack defensive systems and require combat air patrols to keep them safe.
  • Tankers can use or offload the fuel they carry. Some can also receive fuels... giving them near unlimited range to travel to the point of refueling.

Why is air refueling a strategic capability?

  • Force Extension (Airbridge): This gives other airplanes near unlimited range. B-2 bombers only have one base in the US Midwest... but can hold any target on the planet at risk by staging multiple refuelings along the way.

  • Force Multiplication: This give war planners more capability than is actually deployed to support the mission. With air refueling support, fighters can loiter longer over targets and carry increased weapons loads.

  • $\begingroup$ Anyway tankers are more like (and may be derived from) airliners - designed to fly laden between continents, taking a good few hours to do so, so even if they're not set up to use the fuel they carry for others, they've still got a lot of range. In brief tankers make point R $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 15, 2021 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ Well said. Another way to state it... NKAWTG. $\endgroup$
    – daWaveman
    Oct 15, 2021 at 15:55

Two simple examples:

First, say you want to get fighters from the US to Europe. The AR divert fields might be Bangor, Maine, then St John's Newfoundland, then Keflavik, Iceland, then someplace in Ireland. You don't have to fly them point-to-point from each of these getting gas on the ground along the way. You don't even have to overfly any of them. You simply plan your route so that there is enough gas in the tanks of each fighter so that if "this" AR fails, they have the gas to turn north to whatever divert field is closest "now". So they get one long flight to Germany, rather than several shorter ones, which would add up to more time & more opportunities for an aircraft to break.

Second, let's say you have multiple bases in one Saudi Arabia, and fighters will go attack targets in Iraq -- a Desert Storm type of scenario. The fighters take off from bases fairly far south in Saudi. Shortly before going into hostile airspace, they tank up so their tanks are full. Their fuel plan is to conduct the mission in hostile territory, and tank again after returning to Saudi airspace. If that AR fails, then they divert to the farthest north (closest) friendly base; in the 99% case that the post-strike AR goes fine, then they can return to their actual base farther away. They didn't have the fuel at takeoff to fly all those miles, but because of the tanker, the mission works fine that way.

Having to defend the AR divert fields, or not (simple Atlantic crossing), isn't really related to the refueling itself.

Also, the tankers, having all kinds of capacity for fuel, can be based anywhere -- not at any of the AR divert bases. They may accompany the receiver all the way across the pond (common when dragging fighters across the Atlantic), or they may orbit in friendly airspace (a Desert Storm scenario). But they probably are NOT based at the far-north base that'd be the divert field for a fighter that couldn't AR. With their range, they can be based pretty far away just fine.


Air to Air refueling allows a jet to get to somewhere beyond its actual range on internal gas.

If a jet has a range when loaded of 800 miles, and the target is 1000 miles away, that jet cannot do the full round trip on a single tank of gas.

For Navy jets off a carrier, often they cannot take off with both a full tank of gas AND a full load of munitions. So, take off with 1/2 gas, and fill up in the air.

Fly to the target, drop munitions, return...tanking on the way back.

Air to air refueling is a range extender.

"Ok cool, so why doesn't your enemy attacks R, which is unprotected" (R being the refueling aircraft) Generally, it IS protected, or out of range from the attackers.

Even just a commonplace issue of flying an F-16 from Shaw AFB, SC to Aviano AB Italy...you'll need to tank. A KC-10 from McGuire AFB NJ, orbiting over the Atlantic, to fill up on the way.


Another point: political sensibility

Imagine the US conducting military operations in a region with no strong allies in the neighbourhood. Why would a nation, which is on barely friendly terms with the US allow armed US fighters to land and refuel? This is unlikely to happen. However, there's always the option to place a tanker over international water to do the refueling.

Air-refueling allow you to conduct operations independent of land bases, which most often belong to other nations, which in turn are at best moderately friendly.

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    $\begingroup$ There can also be allies which for political reasons would balk at hosting nuclear-capable warplanes, or being the launch point for an attack, but which might agree to host logistics and supply equipment, including tankers, or at least allow refueling in their airspace. Political compromises can result in some pretty random combinations of restrictions. $\endgroup$
    – CCTO
    Oct 14, 2021 at 17:12

Another reason could be if you're conducting a high sensitivity operation, such as inserting US Special Forces to aid friendly guerrilla forces in denied territory. The insertion aircraft (A USAF MC-130 Combat Talon, for example) would be launched from a secure base in the US and air refuel along the way, without having to stop at allied bases along the way, which would introduce or increase the risk of compromise.


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