After being upgraded to the Block 45.1 standard in the United States, the Turkish Air Force’s Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft returned to Incirlik Air Base, home of the 10th Tanker Base Command. The Turkish Ministry of Defense stated “the modernization of our tanker aircraft in the US was completed and (the aircraft) safely landed at our 10th Tanker Base Command.” In order to prevent the aircraft from being identified in the pictures released by the Ministry of National Defense, the serial number was obscured. However, the modernized aircraft was reported to have registration number 58-0110 during its return from Will Rogers World Airport to Incirlik Air Base, according to a tweet by Amelia Smith, a satellite imagery and aviation Open-Source Intelligence analyst. Thus, the aircraft in question was identified as the 6th KC-135R Stratotanker, whose avionics modernization has been completed in the United States as part of the upgrade program.
The Turkish Air Force operates seven KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft. These aircraft, which were donated to the Turkish Air Force by the US in the 1990s as part of the South Wing Aid program, are all being upgraded to the Pacer CRAG (Compass, Radar, and GPS) Block 45 configuration, with the last aircraft scheduled for delivery in 2023. Replacement of 63 parts, including high-maintenance and obsolete analog instruments including new liquid crystal displays, radio altimeter, computer module upgrades, autopilot and digital flight director, and a complete refurbishment of the flight deck, will extend the capabilities of the KC-135s into the future. As a result, it is anticipated that the tanker aircraft, for which modernization efforts have been completed, would continue to remain in use for another 20 years.
The Turkish Air Force’s KC-135R tanker aircraft are currently assigned to the 101st Airborne Refueling Fleet Command at the 10th Tanker Base Command in Adana, Incirlik. This fleet, named “Asena” after the she-wolf Asena – who is said to have raised an orphan in Turkish mythology, is still considered the Turkish Air Force’s most important strategic fleet. KC-135R tanker aircraft have played a key role in a wide range of TAF operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean, providing refueling to many aircraft, particularly F-16 and F-4 fighter planes and Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense and Air Force are still looking for new tanker aircraft, in addition to modernizing their aerial refueling fleet, which is nearing the end of its service life. The A330 Multi-Role Tanker and Transport (MRTT) Aircraft, developed by Airbus, Europe’s largest aerospace company, is one of the candidates being evaluated for the Turkish aerial refueling requirement. The Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker aircraft, an American alternative to the A330 MRTT, is another aircraft under consideration. Turkey is expected to make a decision on the aircraft to be procured in the near future. The TAF also operate Airbus A400M Atlas and Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. In addition to transport missions, these aircraft can perform aerial refueling if properly equipped. This could be an alternative route for the Turkish air force if Turkey’s new aerial refueling aircraft order is delayed.