US Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets Deploy to Poland for Air Policing

Boeing F/A-18C Hornets of US Marine Corps Squadron VMFA-323.
Boeing F/A-18C Hornets of US Marine Corps Squadron VMFA-323.

On the 78th Anniversary of ‘D-Day’ 6 June 1944, the Boeing F/A-18C Hornets of US Marine Corps Squadron VMFA-323 began their deployment to Lask air base in Poland.

The deployment of 10 Hornets was supported by a Lockheed KC-130J Super Hercules from VMGR-352. The aircraft, KC-130J, 170272 ‘QB272’, not only provides in-theatre aerial refuelling, allowing the F/A-18s to fly for longer durations without having to land to refuel, but also acts as an organic asset to the Marine Corps in general.

VMFA-323, a subordinate unit to 3rd MAW, have deployed to Łask AB to conduct NATO’s enhanced Air Policing (eAP) mission. The goal of NATO eAP is to demonstrate the collective resolve of Allies, demonstrate the defensive nature of NATO, and deter aggression or the threat of aggression in the region. VMFA-323’s F/A-18C Hornets will be flying patrols over Polish airspace as part of a joint effort to increase the readiness and responsiveness of NATO.

VMFA-323 have effectively relieved a sister unit, VMFA-312, who returned home to the United States earlier in the month.

Boeing F/A-18C Hornets of US Marine Corps Squadron VMFA-323.
Boeing F/A-18C Hornets of US Marine Corps Squadron VMFA-323.

Tanker trouble

Although the USMC is quite capable of supplying its own in-flight refuelling through its substantial fleet of Hercules tankers, for the long over water transit the USAF tanker force was employed. However this fleet, in spite of the recent introduction of the Boeing KC-46A, is often seen as over stretched and suffering from continuous serviceability problems as witnessed on numerous occasions in recent times involving both deployments and aircraft deliveries.

For this deployment two separate cells of Hornets were supported by a number of regular and reserve Boeing KC-135R aircraft. For the trans-Atlantic portion of the ‘trail’, the first cell of aircraft known as ‘MASDA 11 Flight’, were supported by KC-135R 60-0331 of the 6th AMW as ‘Gold 63’. This aircraft support the Hornets out of Bangor, Maine for the leg into Prestwick airport in Scotland. The second cell of five aircraft, ‘MASDA 22 Flight’, were supported by KC-135R 58-0109 as ‘Gold 73’.

The leg out of Bangor started well albeit slightly later than originally planned and arrived at Prestwick International late on the evening of 8 June. However the second cell soon got into refuelling difficulties and the entire formation plus the errant tanker diverted into Keflavik, Iceland. The KC-135R returning to the US on the following day.

Lockheed KC-130J Super Hercules from VMGR-352.
Lockheed KC-130J Super Hercules from VMGR-352.

In the meantime, after suitable crew rest the first cell departed to Lask in Poland supported by 60-0331 that provided a single top up prior to recovering back into Prestwick. The supporting KC-130J with the ground engineers on board departed back to Iceland to ensure the second cell were able to continue their journey eastwards.

Replacement tanker support was provided by the 100th ARW out of RAF Mildenhall on 11 June in the shape of aircraft 62-3551 operating as ‘Gold 90′ . This met the Hornets out of Keflavik just south of Iceland and took them direct to Lask.

The experiences of this deployment are mirrored on numerous occasions and that is not a reflection on the men and women of the USAF tanker forces but the fact they are operating what are effectively 60 year old systems that in spite of having been continuously upgraded over the years.

Tanker challenges

According to news reports, the US Air force may cut its fleet of aerial refuelling tankers by five percent.

During an event at the Heritage Foundation think tank, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service plans to ask Congress for permission to cut its tanker fleet requirement from a minimum of 479 refuelling aircraft to 455.

Congress set the 479 requirement when it passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which was based on a TRANSCOM study from 2018 that found that number to be the minimum fleet size required if war broke out. At the end of 2021, the Air Force had about 490 tankers in its fleet.

Air Mobility Command announced on 1 June that the KC-46A Pegasus tanker is now approved to refuel about 97 percent of aircraft flown during US Transportation Command missions.

by Peter Foster