Air superiority is vital for success in an operation. Aircraft, however, are limited by their fuel capacity and loadout. Flying back to base, whether that is an aircraft carrier or an airbase, can be a timely affair. Consequently, the ability to refuel and rearm close to the front, by utilizing a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP), is key.
The establishment and operation of a FARP can be a tricky affair. First, it requires a team of pathfinders to survey the impromptu airfield or landing strip for suitability. That’s where the Air Commandos of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) come in.
One of the skillsets of Special Warfare Squadrons is to survey and operate airfields in permissive or non-permissive environments. Last month, AFSOC and the conventional Air Force tested the ability to establish a FARP in support of 5th generation fighter jets.
During the annual Emerald Warrior exercise, which was held at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, this January, Air Force Special Operations airmen provided FARP support to F-22 Raptors for the first time.
Special Warfare Airmen, most probably a Combat Control (CCT) contingent, parachuted, surveyed, and established an airfield behind enemy lines. Then, an MC-130J Commando II landed, and the Airmen began setting up the FARP. Soon afterward, F-22 Raptors began landing to be refueled.
“The ability to refuel aircraft at forward airfields and in austere environments is a critical element of Agile Combat Employment,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Davis, the commander of the 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “Practicing this capability with Special Tactics operators enhances our interoperability with the special operations community and increases our ability to generate combat power in a contested environment. Special Tactics operators are uniquely suited to seize and control airfields, and demonstrating our ability to conduct forward area refueling in challenging arctic conditions takes ACE to new heights.”
But the Air Force isn’t the only branch concerned with FARPs. The Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR) also packs a little-known FARP capability. Other than transporting Special Operations units anywhere in the world (plus or minus 30 seconds), the Night Stalkers, as the unit is nicknamed, also pack a formidable offensive capability in the form of the AH-6 Little Birds and MH-60 Direct Action Penetration (DAP) Blackhawks. And more often than not, these assets operate deep behind enemy lines or in semi-permissive environments. During the early days of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), 160th SOAR conducted some unheard-of seek-and-destroy missions behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. And FARPs proved to be crucial in their success.
“Bringing together [the Air Force Special Operations Command] and the [Conventional Air Force] capitalizes on the rapid planning cycle and precision lethality of Special Tactics in combination with the overwhelming firepower of the CAF,” said a Special Tactics Officer (STO), who also held one of the leadership positions in the exercise.
“We are able to break open opportunities not afforded to aircraft, like the F-22, in a major combat operation when we rapidly seize an airfield and utilize it to rearm and refuel air dominance assets to keep them in the fight.”
FARPs are a little-known but critical contributor to mission success.
This article was originally published in February 2020. It has been edited for republication.