The Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing recently played a critical role in facilitating an air bridge leading up to exercise Air Defender 2023, the German led, multinational live-fly NATO exercise held June 12-23, with a total of 235 aircraft from 25 nations and more than 10,000 personnel participating throughout the European theater. The participation of the 128th Air Refueling Wing in this operation showcases the invaluable role they play in maintaining global security and stability. During an air-bridge operation, the 128th’s KC-135 tankers act as a flying gas station — carrying a large quantity of fuel and utilizing a boom system to transfer fuel to the receiving aircraft — maximizing operational efficiency and reducing transit times.

By providing fuel to the transport aircraft, the KC-135 tanker ensures that they can reach their destinations without having to make frequent stops for refueling. This capability is especially valuable when transporting time-sensitive cargo or when operating in areas where fueling infrastructure may be limited or unavailable. “The whole point of this [exercise] is to integrate with our multi-national partners and show that we can seamlessly work as one large coalition force,” said Maj. Brandyn Dietman, deputy director of air refueling with 128th Air Refueling Wing.

The air bridge is incredibly important for exercises like Air Defender 2023, which involves multiple participating air forces from NATO member and allied countries coming together to enhance cooperation, interoperability, and readiness. To effectively simulate real-world defense scenarios, it is imperative that forces can rapidly deploy to different locations. “Moving 100 aircraft over the ocean in the matter of four or five flying days is a monumental feat,” Dietman said. “Fighter aircraft can’t make it over by themselves, so they need the tankers to build the air bridge to help them get over.” Air Defender 2023 is the largest air forces redeployment exercise since NATO was founded. As a result, the exercise has been given a high priority — particularly by the U.S. — in terms of exercise participation, budgeting and coordinated strategic communications.

Engaging in air bridge operations during the AD23 exercise not only highlights the 128th Air Refueling Wing’s capabilities but also demonstrates the United States’ commitment to its allies. This critical logistical support ensures the smooth flow of personnel and equipment, reinforcing the alliance’s collective defense posture. “The hard work of everybody working together, whether it’s your unit-level personnel putting together the aircraft, putting the plans together, making sure the funds are full, making sure that everything is going to happen is awesome,” Dietman said. “From a year’s worth of work that we’ve put into this, I’m super proud of everyone at the 128th Air Refueling Wing and the hard work they’ve done.”

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