People sometimes gloss over one of the United States’ most significant military advantages when they discuss its many other military superiorities, and that advantage is the country’s enormous fleets of refueling aircraft. There is no question that the United States has the greatest Air Force in the world.
The United States maintains such a vast fleet of refueling aircraft that it not only has far more than any other country but also has more than all of the other nations on the earth put together.
According to the statistics compiled by GlobalFirePower.com for 2023, the United States military flies as many as 568 refueling aircraft, 546 more than the number two country, Saudi Arabia, which only has 22 of these aircraft.
Israel rounds out the top five national tanker fleets with just 11 vessels, while France and Russia share the number three slot with 19 tankers each.
Since the beginning of aviation, aircraft design has necessitated a delicate balancing act between the amount of weight and the distance it can go. Long-distance flying requires mechanically efficient engines, aerodynamically sound aircraft designs, and a large amount of space for fuel storage.
The capacity of an aircraft’s fuel store determined how far it could fly until the development of air-to-air refueling. However, because of the ability to refuel at various points along the route from different tanker planes, modern aircraft can fly for extended periods without the pilots’ hands becoming numb.
But this military advantage is manifested in various ways, one of which is by extending the global range of America’s tactical aircraft. Tankers make it possible for high-performance fighter aircraft to stay in the fight for a significantly more extended period than they usually would be able to.
When an F-16 arrives at a battle, for instance, it typically has no more than roughly 30 minutes worth of fuel left before it needs to turn around and fly home. This is unless there is a tanker nearby that can top it off.
Tanker planes can also enable tactical jets to operate from shorter or more difficult airstrips by allowing them to take off with less fuel than usual.
Because they weigh less when carrying less fuel, airplanes can take off from shorter runways, making them more maneuverable. After that, once the planes are in the air, tankers may come in to refuel them.
In terms of how much air time our fighters have, as opposed to being grounded, this alone provides a more robust military– offensively and defensively.