The 92 ARW, Total Force Teamwork in Operation Allied Force

  • Published
  • By Jim O'Connell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
On March 24, 1999, the United States and its NATO partners launched a 78-day air war against Serbia during Operation Allied Force.

Continuing the wing's legacy of excellence, Airmen of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing helped lead the way, facilitating essential air refueling support. The Wing provided leadership and staff at four different locations and crews, support personnel as well as aircraft at seven other bases.

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States ended shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent unravelling of the Soviet Bloc. Eventually, in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved when various states declared their independence.

Ethnic Albanians inhabited Kosovo, a Serbian province. Of the 2 million people that lived in Kosovo, only 10 percent were Serbian while the remaining 90 percent traced their roots to Muslim Albania. Shortly after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1989, Serbia declared itself the federal successor.

President Slobodan Milosovic and his new Serbian government stripped Kosovo of its special autonomous status, dismissed the local governments and closed down all Albanian language schools. In reaction, the Muslims formed a guerilla independence movement called the Kosovar Liberation Army. The new Serbian government used its military to systematically crush the ethnic Albanian opposition. The ethnic cleansing and violence claimed more than 250,000 lives by 1995 and spurred the Kosovar Albanians' desire for independence.

When the violence continued to escalate, the United Nations Security Council warned of an "impending humanitarian catastrophe." NATO threatened an air campaign in 1998 and President Milosevic agreed to some concessions. However, when additional peace negotiations were held in the spring of 1999, Milosevic massed troops along the Kosovo border. He ultimately rejected all peace proposals and directed 40,000 troops into Kosovo, creating a massive refugee crisis.  
Even though the first attacks were launched on the night of March 24, 1999, using 250 U.S. aircraft, including nearly 40 aerial refueling tankers, planning for the operation and deployment of the U.S., NATO assets began much earlier. Since early 1998, OAF planners worked out nearly 40 different campaign options. The final air campaign was a "coercive operation." Its primary purpose was to force Milosevic's withdrawal from Kosovo. NATO leaders rejected the use of ground troops, believing air power could achieve the mission's objective. 

92nd ARW personnel and equipment first deployed on February 19 in support of this operation. In total, 24 aircraft and more than 660 personnel were deployed to seven different locations. These locations included Moron Air Base, Spain; Sigonella AB, Italy; Mont-de-Marsan AB, France; Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom; Vicenza, Italy; and Rhein-Mein AB, Germany. 

Col. Timothy C. Jones, the 92nd ARW commander, deployed to Rhein-Mein AB where he took command of the 60th Air Expeditionary Wing. Col. Michael C. Billings, the 92nd Operations Group commander, deployed to Moron AB, becoming the 92nd Air Expeditionary Wing vice-commander.  Both units became known for their total force make-up. The 60th AEW numbered more than 1,600 active, guard and reserve personnel and included another 500 personnel forward deployed in Budapest, Hungary. With oversight of 50 aircraft, a mix of KC-135E Stratotanker, KC-135R Stratotanker , KC-10 Extenders and the E-8C J-STAR's.

Col. Jones stated, "We now have one smooth running operation of one wing with people from all over the Total Air Force: Active, Guard, Reserve, Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command, United States Air Force in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, Air Force Mobility Command, Air Force Space Command and even a couple from the Air Force Academy."

He went on to say that, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., reinforcements' connection continues at a geographically separated unit at Budapest. The 141st Washington Air National Guard is flying KC-135 Stratotankers there - a key reason for the wing's success at Budapest. Six KC-135E's and 140 Airmen of the 141st WA ANG deployed there in May 1999. 

The total force story was much the same with the 92nd AEW at Moron AB. At its height, the 92nd AEW had more than 65 KC-135 Stratotankers, 11 of which came from Fairchild AFB, and KC-10 Extenders assigned along with 1,500 Airmen, making the wing the largest combat tanker wing to be assembled since Vietnam. Maintainers, supply personnel and fuel specialists, among others, worked diligently to achieve a 99.2 percent mission effectiveness rate.

"One piece of evidence of the phenomenal teamwork revolves around an astounding 99 percent maintenance rate. The KC-135 Stratotankers flew more than 1,400 combat sorties before we cancelled one for maintenance," Col. Billings said.

Maj. Gene Mittuch, chief of maintenance and the 92nd Aircraft Generation Squadron commander at Fairchild AFB, added, "Everyone is focused on the mission and knows what needs to be done." 

By the time the NATO Secretary General suspended air operations on June 10 after President Milosevic agreed to the peace terms, the 92nd AEW's crews had flown more than 1,800 missions and off-loaded 80 million pounds of fuel to 7,500 NATO receivers. In total, tankers delivered 355.8 million pounds of fuel to more than 23,000 receivers. 

On June 20, NATO officially terminated OAF. On July 1, the first groups of the 92nd ARW personnel returned home. Jones returned from Germany a few days later and the final aircrew and aircraft arrived back to Fairchild AFB on July 20. By the time the last crew returned, 92 ARW crews had flown over 7,100 hours supporting OAF.

In an interview, Col. Steven Bernard, the deployed 92nd OG commander and 93rd Air Refueling Squadron commander at Fairchild AFB, summed up the operation by saying, "Our mission effectiveness rating was pretty amazing - 98.6 percent, all sorties. Just to be able to see how all these different agencies come together and work as a team showed our standardization had to be working together somehow. So that was our biggest success."

Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, Allied Air Forces Southern Europe commander, OAF, lauded the 92nd's efforts when he stated, "I would like to express my deepest thanks to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing for a job well done. Success would not have been possible without your discipline, professionalism and courage. Your individual and collective dedication to duty was critical to enabling NATO airpower meet all its objectives. Throughout the air campaign, I asked you to support operations against a highly capable enemy, in restrictive airspace, in challenging weather and under a very high operations tempo. Despite these many challenges, time and again you provided essential refueling support to fellow NATO aircrews enabling us to reach and defeat the enemy. Aircrews, maintainers and support personnel should take great pride in the unparalleled achievements of this air campaign." 

Once again in OAF, as it has done so many times in the past, the Airmen of Fairchild AFB set the gold bar standard, blazing a legacy of excellence for others to follow.