The U.K. Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoon jets have tested a “hot pit” refueling capability for the first time in Norway, during a deployment that parallels recent U.S. Air Force activities in this increasingly contested area. This involves aircraft being topped up with fuel with their engines running the entire time. The proof-of-concept exercise was used to test the ability of the Typhoon to operate from a dispersed location, which would likely be of paramount importance in any future conflict with a peer adversary.
The training event, announced by the RAF today, took an undisclosed number of Typhoons assigned to No II Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to Bodø Main Air Station in northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle. The fighters were supported by an A400M transport plane and a Voyager aerial refueling tanker, both from RAF Brize Norton in England.
After establishing what the service described as a “self-sufficient, multi-skilled, RAF team that was embedded within the Royal Norwegian Air Force [RNoAF] base,” the Typhoons flew a joint training exercise over the Norwegian Sea with RNoAF F-16 fighters.
“This integrated activity demonstrated our ability to deploy, integrate and recover our assets in an agile, short notice manner,” said RAF Air Vice-Marshal Ian Duguid, U.K. Global Air Component Commander. “This small footprint strengthens the flexible employment of Air Power across the NATO partnership.”
“This bilateral training improves the speed at which highly capable Air Forces, across the NATO partnership, can deliver decisive airpower from several dispersed locations,” added Royal Norwegian Air Force Colonel John Olsen, Norway’s Defense Attaché to the United Kingdom.
While the deployment of RAF aircraft to Norway helped improve interoperability and strengthened the bonds between the air arms of the countries, “hot pit” refueling also has an important application in real-world scenarios, maximizing the amount of time spent in the air compared to on the ground and reducing turnaround time between missions.
While the RAF has conducted “hot pit” refueling at its own bases in the United Kingdom, notably when it still operated the Tornado GR4 strike aircraft, the latest, out-of-country exercise for the Typhoon is planned as part of a series of drills that will practice setting up and then running flying operations from “multiple dispersed locations” at short notice.
The plan is that, should it be required, Typhoons could be rapidly dispersed to other bases, likely those of NATO allies elsewhere in Europe, such as Norway, refuel on arrival, and then immediately launch operations. This could be put to use to respond to a particular situation that flares up in another country, or otherwise to disperse the RAF Typhoon fleet from its two main operating bases in the United Kingdom, Coningsby and Lossiemouth, should they come under threat.
That last point was among those raised yesterday by U.K. Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey, during his address at the Air Chiefs’ Conference yesterday.
Heappey spoke of the importance of “re-finding our ability to disperse and operate in a more expeditionary way [that] makes life harder for those who look at our home base and think that we’re sunk if missiles hit Lossiemouth, Coningsby, and Marham.”
The last base mentioned by Heappey is home to the U.K.’s F-35B stealth fighter fleet, a portion of which is currently operating aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, in another expression of the ability to operate fighters from forward locations. With a history of having operated Harrier attack jets in austere environments, the United Kingdom could also be well placed to use its F-35B fleet in this way, too, exploiting its ability to operate even without the need for traditional runways.
It’s worth noting that RAF F-35Bs have already undertaken “fast ground refueling” from a C-130J transport at an austere airfield on the Italian island of Pantelleria.
Distributed operations of the kind that would likely employ “hot pit” refueling, as well as forward arming and refueling points (FARPs), which were not tested in Norway, are clearly a matter of increasing importance for many air forces. With the types of threats that can hold traditional airbases at risk proliferating, as well as becoming harder to defend against, air arms, including in the United States are looking at ways to rapidly move aircraft and personnel out to austere locations and then set up fully functional airbases.
That applies in Europe, but also in the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. military has of late been stepping up this kind of training, especially as part of its bomber operations. This has included B-2 Spirit stealth bombers flying from the Azores in the Atlantic and B-1B Lancer bombers operating from Norway teaming up near Iceland, another region of significant strategic importance, for a show of force earlier this year.
For the multi-role Typhoons, the trip to Norway also emphasizes their importance for NATO missions beyond air policing rotations, and against potential enemies very different to those encountered during the type’s enduring commitment to the counter-ISIS mission in the Middle East, from their base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Norway, too, has particular relevance, both for the strategic implications of its location and for the increasing military cooperation between the Scandinavian country and the United Kingdom. As well as the recent Typhoon exercise, U.K. officials have confirmed the nine RAF P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will work closely with Norway’s five examples, which are yet to be delivered. The P-8 fleets will “share basing facilities, undergo cold-weather training together and patrol the seas and skies side-by-side […] to successfully face down the growing threats from adversaries in the North Atlantic region,” according to a U.K. government statement.
As for the geographic advantage of closer collaboration with Norway, Bodø, in particular, is an ideal location to provide closer access to the Norwegian and Barents Seas, as well as the wider Arctic region, the strategic importance of which is only set to grow. More specifically, these waters are also routinely patrolled by Russian Navy ships and submarines as they head out via the so-called Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, and into the northern Atlantic Ocean.
That Russia, for its part, considers Norway a potential theater for combat operations is evidenced by provocative activities in this region, including multiple mock airstrikes that were apparently directed at the radar facility at Vardø, close to Norway’s border with Russia.
The U.S. military, too, is increasingly looking to the possibility of launching operations out of Norway. Earlier this year, a U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber touched down at Bodø, where it conducted a so-called “warm-pit refuel,” in which the crew remains on board and the aircraft receives power from its auxiliary power unit (APU), but with the main engines shut down.
The U.S. Navy is also looking to expand its presence in northern Norway, with consideration given to submarine operations that would make use of the huge underground base at Olavsvern, around 200 miles northeast of Bodø.
Of course, while it makes sense to deploy RAF Typhoons to Norway based on the increased NATO focus on that country, there is no reason why the same kinds of concepts can’t be employed elsewhere, too. This recent exercise, and the force package involved, is similar in some respects to the U.S. Air Force Rapid Raptor concept, in which small packages of F-22 fighters arrive, “ready to fight,” in distant locations and at short notice with the help of other supporting aircraft. This has since evolved into what that service now refers to as Agile Combat Employments (ACE), which involve various different kinds of aircraft.
All told, it seems likely that we will see RAF Typhoons, and perhaps other aircraft too, conducting similar dispersed operations drills in different locations in the near future.
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