French Air and Space Force bids adieu to last Boeing C135FR tanker

Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace / Facebook

The French Air and Space Force has retired the last Boeing C-135FR from service during a recent ceremony at Istres Air Base. 

In the 1960s, France sought a strategic tanker for its new Mirage IV strategic bombers. A total of 12 Boeing C135 aircraft were ordered for this mission, and on February 5, 1964, the first C-135F (63-8471) landed at Air Base 125 Istres-Le Tubé (Bouches-du-Rhône).

As well as ensuring strategic readiness, over time the C-135Fs were used for long-distance logistical transport and refueling numerous aircraft of the French Air and Space Force and allied forces.

In the late 1980s, the tankers were redesignated C-135FR (R for ‘rénové’ – renovated) after undergoing a modernization program that saw them fitted with new CFM International CFM-56 engines. 

On the night of December 13 to 14, 2023, the French Air and Space Force conducted their fourth and final Poker exercise of 2023, the last to involve a C-135FR.  

Conducted once per quarter across the French territory, the six-hour-long Poker mission includes “all phases proper to a deterrent nuclear mission:” a long high-altitude flight with inflight refueling, followed by a very low altitude and high-speed penetration in highly defended areas from both ground-air and air-to-air Anti Access/Area Denial systems. This concludes with the precision firing of an ASMP-A missile (obviously, without nuclear charge), on a test area of the DGA (the French Defense procurement and technology agency) missile testing center. 

Since the arrival of the A330MRTT at Istres Air Base, the C-135FRs have been gradually phased out, after 59 years of service. The retirement of the last C135FR coincided with the delivery of the twelfth MRTT to the French Air and Space Force. However, it does not mark the end of Boeing tankers for France, as three KC-135RG aircraft will continue to operate until 2025. 

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