The Marines have been wanting a larger tanker fleet for some time for this and other reasons (probably one reason to come out and publicly complain about the USAF's rules). The USAF will not take risk and reduce their peacetime requirement on safety grounds. It is the same for the F-22, or F-15 as it is for the F-16 or F-35 or even the Harriers and Hornets. On this program just imagine the hipsters reporters going bat $hit crazy if an aircraft had to divert during transit..Folks would be lining up 10 x 1 Trillion dollar cost in media headlines
. The only time they tune down their requirements are during a security package deployment (that mandates a pre set logistical footprint) or combat operations. The Marines did a scheduled transit to MCAS Iwakuni so it doesn't fit in any other category.
The USAF required the F-35B's to fly with their fuel probe retracted (same for all such transitions) and mandated that they refuel every 30-35 minutes. Needless to say the Marine Aviation boss, Lt. Gen. Dog Davis wasn't amused.
“The airplane has got longer legs than an F-18 with drop tanks, so why are we going with the tanker so often? We don’t need to do that,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine Corps commandant for aviation. “We are tanking a lot more than we should, maybe double [what we should.] We could be a lot more efficient than that.”
While Davis says the tanking model for refueling the Joint Strike Fighter is “off in an overly conservative manner,” it is ultimately up to the Air Force to set the rules—and the air arm is not budging.
It comes as no surprise to Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus that the Marine Corps jets needed to refuel so many times during the crossing to Iwakuni. The Air Force sets up ocean crossings assuming the worst-case scenario, so that if any aircraft is not able to get fuel at any given time during the journey—whether due to weather or a technical malfunction—the entire group has enough gas to land safely, Pleus explained. For instance, the F-35Bs flew with their refueling probes out during the entire voyage, which significantly increases drag on the aircraft, to simulate a scenario in which the operator is not able to retract the probe.
“So when we plan these things we take the worst winds, we take the worst configuration of the airplane, and we say: at the worst time, what would happen?” said Pleus, a former F-16 pilot who now heads the Air Force’s F-35 integration office. “It is very conservative, and the reason why we’re so conservative is because it’s a life or death decision.”
Traditionally the Air Force refuels “almost continuously” when crossing a large body of water, as often as every 30 or 40 min., Pleus said. An F-35B, which carries 5,000 lb. less fuel than the Air Force F-35A, likely needs to hit the tanker even more often than that, he noted.
Pleus pushed back on Davis’ criticism, stressing that extending time between refuelings during an ocean crossing would mean more risk to pilots.
During a combat scenario, however, the Air Force would have a different calculus. Typically on a 6-hr. mission, a pilot would tank just two or three times, according to one Air Force official. It is important to top up before the mission because tankers are too vulnerable to fly alongside fighters during combat.