Two strategic missile carriers of the Russian Aerospace Forces covered an almost 5,000-mile (8,000 km) distance, during a recent long-range flight exercise. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the Tu-160 bombers flew from Chukotka to the Saratov Region, over the East Siberian sea and the Kara sea in the Arctic Ocean, while also practicing in-flight refueling.
Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) actually has a long history, with the first attempts going way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Russia claims that it was here where the idea of in-flight refueling was born, in 1917, although the first successful refueling was performed by U.S. Air Force pilots, in 1923.
The first methods were unsophisticated and dangerous. In fact, refueling is still considered a risky practice to this day, which is one of the main reasons why it’s not used for commercial flights. The other reason is that they don’t really need it, since they don’t cover extremely long routes. But military forces do need it. Over the decades, it became clear that endurance and stealth during strategic missions have a lot to do with the aircraft refueling capabilities.
And, when you consider the vastness of the Russian land, it’s no wonder that refueling was marked as a priority. According to Rostec (the Russian State’s Military-Industrial Organization), from the 1980s, in-flight refueling capabilities were integrated into all new military aircraft.
One of them was the Tu-160, a strategic missile carrier bomber that made history during the Soviet Era, before a second-generation model was developed in 2017. Known as the world’s heaviest bomber, this aircraft was specifically meant to access and potentially attack targets in far-away geographical regions, so endurance was a critical factor. And it continues to be, to this day.
Described by the European Air Transport Command as “a major air power force multiplier”, AAR is a top priority for the U.S. as well, who recently demonstrated the first-ever refueling with an unmanned aerial tanker.