Here on Foxtrot Alpha we mention Forward Arming and Refueling Points pretty often, but describing how a C-130 can turn into a mobile gas station and ammo dump in the middle of nowhere in a matter of minutes and seeing it actually happen for your own eyes are two very different things.
This video, shot during a training exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center 29 Palms, gives you a good idea of how these high-explosive laden 'pit stops' all come together:
As dispersed operations at austere locales and long-range special ops raids have become increasingly popular tactics over the last few years, we will see more and more of FARPs in the future. Even the F-22, the USAF's most complex and finicky fighter aircraft, is having to adapt to possible operations under austere conditions in the Pacific Theater and other hot spots.
Sprawling air bases are also big known targets for the enemy and in a near-peer state conflict there is a good chance that those bases will be bombarded with air-breathing and ballistic missiles, making operations from them very problematic and even their wholesale destruction a possibility. Thus being able to migrate a portion of your force to more obscure operating locations is a very relevant capability to train for.
For attack helicopters and hardy close air support oriented aircraft like the A-10 and even the AV-8B Harrier, FARPs are more about getting into the action as fast as possible and as many times as possible in a given length of time. Moving close to the front lines greatly enhances a squadron's sortie rate and can have substantial and life-saving effects for friendly ground forces in combat nearby. This concept was used by A-10s during Operation Iraqi Freedom and continued to be used by attack helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade.
When it comes to special operations missions, especially those that occur deep inside enemy territory, what helicopters lack in range and payload a FARP can make up for. An MC-130 Combat Talon can land in the middle of nowhere and quickly refuel hungry special operations Blackhawks and Chinooks. In lower threat environments, even larger C-17s can land at semi-prepared airstrips and quickly offload gear and personnel to gain a foothold in enemy territory. In doing so, this tactic can work as an anti-access weapon, crow-baring open targets deep inside enemy territory that are usually outside the range of unrefueled conventional helicopters and even tilt-rotor Ospreys.
The FARP tactic was used by the 160th SOAR, otherwise known as the Nightstalkers, during Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Usama Bin Laden. The stealth Blackahawks used in the raid almost certainly did not have aerial refueling capability and even if they had, a low-altitude aerial refueling via a very non-stealthy MC-130 could have given away their presence. In the case of this historic operation, MH-47s were used in a similar role as the KC-130 Hercules or MC-130 Combat Talon, as a mobile gas stations ready to 'hot pit,' or refuel while running, the stealth Blackhawks after exiting the target area.
You can see how rapidly the USAF's special operations community can set up a FARP in the video below.
For years, FARPs were burned into mission planners minds as very high-risk operations following the disaster at Desert One during Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. Yet that image has changed greatly over the past 25 years and America turns away from fighting terror with large conventional land forces and the DoD continues with its slow pivot towards the Pacific Theater, FARPs and operating out of austere locations will become more and more a staple of future US battle doctrine.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com