Marines to Test MV-22 Air-to-Air Refueling this Summer

Stealthy fighter jets would have a tanker that can keep up.

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The Marine Corps will start testing a new configuration for its main transport plane that officials say could revolutionize the reach of the Corps' combat aircraft.

The MV-22 Osprey, which Marines have already used as troop transports for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, will start testing air-to-air refueling this summer, Marine Corps officials tell U.S. News. Manufacturer Boeing already has a kit that would allow crews to roll fuel tanks onto the Osprey's cargo hold and dangle a hose to refuel other planes mid-air.

[READ: The V-22 Osprey May Have Climbed Out of Controversy]

If approved, this would help the U.S. military's quick response force react to catastrophes worldwide, from humanitarian crises to attacks on America's facilities, senior officials say.

This gives "numerous options" for the Marine Corps aviation to refuel its airplanes, such as the F-35 attack jet, says Col. Kevin Killea, who oversees Marine Corps aviation requirements. The stealthy, long-range fighter jet known as the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter would have the benefit of refueling from an MV-22, which would be "autonomous to the Marine Corps."

"So I don't have to ask anyone to use them. I know I always have them, so I can plan to do that, and that's a pretty good certainty," Killea says.

Commanders of deployed Marine Expeditionary Units currently have to send a request to a higher command for a tanker to refuel its jets. Using MV-22s would bring that responsibility in-house for the MEU to save complication and time.

The MV-22's speed and range also allows it to keep up with modern, stealthy aircraft, such as the F-35. This new capability would extend the range of the JSF from 450 miles to 600 miles, Marine officials say.

The Marine Corps hopes to begin trial refueling in a test aircraft in July, Killea says.

"Tankers are always a scarce asset for the military, and particularly for the Marine Corps," says Richard Whittle, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and V-22 expert. "It's always easier to get things done within an organization than it is in coordinating" with other services to get tankers for a mission.

Using the MV-22 for refueling would increase the number of aircraft available to the Marines for this job, he says, and boost the overall versatility of the aircraft itself.

"The Marine Corps is a small organization. Anything that increases their logistical flexibility increases their capability," he says. "It's a good indication of how the V-22 is changing things for the Marine Corps in ways that people haven't really expected."

[ALSO: Hagel to Ink First Foreign V-22 Transport Sale to Israel]

And this isn't the only advancement for the tilt-rotor aircraft. The Marine Corps unit tasked with transporting the president received its inaugural, shiny green V-22 in mid-April. The HMX-1 squadron will use this to transport support staff, equipment and other personnel such as reporters traveling with the president.

"It signifies some of the maturity of the airplane," says Brig. Gen. Matthew Glavy, assistant deputy commandant for Aviation and himself a former HMX-1 Presidential Command pilot.

"It's a very important mission and it works out great from a tactics mission where speed is critical," he says. "The president always departs first and arrives last, so you have to beat him there. It's great when you have a plane that can go 270 knots."

The rollout ceremony for this Osprey will take place at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia May 4.

This also accompanies news that the U.S. will sell an undetermined number of V-22s to the Israeli military. Countries such as Canada and the United Arab Emirates have also expressed interest in purchasing Ospreys.

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This story was corrected to reflect Richard Whittle’s current job title. He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.