Defense Media Network

Faltering Tools for Fire and Ice

It’s a basic lesson any semi-decent carpenter or weekend handyman knows. If you have the right tools, you can do your job a lot easier and a whole lot better. Having a shovel makes it easier to dig a hole; having a power drill allows you to bore a hole faster into a board; and having the right sized wrench allows you to tighten that bolt so a wheel doesn’t fly off.

As basic as this premise might be, it is one that we have failed to follow in terms of dealing with fire and ice in this country. As it pertains to fire, a recent Washington Post story, “Firefighting planes have perhaps been too long on job” detailed the problems the nation is having in terms of an antiquated fleet of firefighting aircraft.

With a median age of several decades and enormous wear and tear on them, the reliability and safety of these aircraft is in serious question. That’s not good news, especially for the Southwestern United States, as fire-season has come early to Arizona this year. Thousands of acres have already burned and many of the widespread fires remain uncontained.

C-130 drops fire retardant

A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft from the 731st Airlift Squadron (ALS) spreads fire suppressant on the hills of Coahuila, Mexico, to help Mexican fire fighters suppress a wildfire April 18, 2011. The 731st ALS deployed two C-130 aircraft fitted with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System in support of the Mexican government to help fight the Coahuila wildfire. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Quinton Russ

While the condition of these aircraft may seem quite remote to people in the plain old suburbs of America, these aircraft and the people flying them as well as those on the ground that are fighting fires along with them have made the difference between life and livelyhood and death and destruction for many. Year in and year out, these aircraft have flown at low level over huge swaths of California, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and more doing their utmost to put out raging forest fires that have consumed too many lives and far too much property. In fact, if you were to turn on your television to watch the news coverage of any of the current (or future) fires charring their way across the landscape, chances are you would see one of these aircraft at work dropping either water or fire retardant chemicals to stop conflagrations from advancing further. They are absolutely essential tools and the hard truth is we may not have them for much longer.

If a tool is no longer usable, or for that matter safe to use, you can’t use it. That’s the precipice where we stand today. Imagine being a homeowner, a business owner, a farmer or for that matter a visitor to one of these fire prone areas with no strategic assets to help combat one of the fastest and most dynamic threats from consuming everything you own. That might have been an acceptable premise before we had aircraft that could provide such support, but it is not acceptable anymore.

Air Force C-130s fight wildfires

A C-130H Hercules aircraft assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing breaks out of formation to follow a King Air airplane over the Deaton Cole wildfire in Val Verde County, Texas, April 29, 2011. The aircraft were equipped with a modular airborne firefighting system that was designed to dispense 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris

Lack of planning and initiative by the U.S. Forest Service are part of the problem, but so is the lack of allocated resources and proactive oversight by the Congress.  Talk is cheap when it comes to supporting items like this, but if talk is the only thing offered, more lives and property are going to be lost.

As difficult as these current conditions might be, it is easy to parallel this situation with the one that we have in the far reaches of Alaska when it comes to ice. For anyone that is a diehard fan of Discovery Channel’s show, Deadliest Catch, you’ve seen your share of episodes when fishing vessels have encountered fields of ice floes that threaten not just the fishing gear but the vessels themselves. There are several assets that are used to monitor and address these conditions, but one of the most essential is icebreaking vessels.  In the current U.S. Coast Guard fleet, you can count on one hand the number of icebreakers we have in operation in the region.

In fact, you can actually count on one finger the number of icebreakers we have operational.

In his March 1, 2011 testimony before the U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, USCG Commandant Adm. Robert Papp reported that the medium-weight vessel Healy, which it shares with the National Science


USCGC Healy is presently the only operational icebreaker in U.S. service. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

Foundation, is the only operational icebreaker capable of carrying out all the Coast Guard’s missions required in the region.

One. That’s all.

Imagine if the U.S. Navy had only one aircraft carrier, or if the Air Force had only one bomber. While it might be a drastic comparison to compare an aircraft carrier and bomber to an ice breaker, the point is the same – how can you expect jobs to be done and missions served if there are not the adequate tools to complete them?

The answer obviously is that those missions won’t get done, or they just won’t get done as expeditiously as they should. That may mean shipping lanes are closed off and fishing and other vessels are put at greater risk, but if your attitude is “Big whoop.  We’ll deal it with another time,” you can probably sleep soundly and not care at all.

While icebreakers and firefighting aircraft are not cheap, the current actions and attitude we have regarding them is neither sensible nor strategic. It’s dangerous, and unfortunately for too many years it has been prevailing in terms of planning and resource investment.

USCGC Polar Star in drydock

USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) in drydock. Its refitting and refurbishment is not scheduled to be complete until 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo

In terms of fire and ice, we now are faced with assets that are either nonexistent or in such critical disrepair that we can’t sustainably protect and safeguard our natural resources or select lanes of commerce in which we operate. There is nothing heartwarming about those conditions.

No enterprise, regardless of how miraculous its business or mission plan might be, could have a successful, long term and profitable life if it operated in these cavalier conditions. Yet, as taxpayers and voters, that is exactly what we possess today.

As we are about to enter a new political silly season, with the 2012 elections coming up in just over a year, it will not at all be unusual to see political candidates accuse their opponents of being soft on crime, defense, or terrorism as they proudly declare their support for more cops, soldiers, intelligence assets and all of the equipment that goes with them. As tough as those candidate positions may be in heralding how “strong” they might be, wouldn’t it be interesting to see candidates accuse their opponents of being weak on preserving our territory, property, and resources by ignoring the needs of the tools we need to support them.

That might be a unique tack to take in a close election, but if the last few decades of care and attention to these resources is any indication, there are plenty of people who can be easily described as lousy stewards of those resources, failing to invest in and protect them so that they can carry out their missions, and that is something which voters and leaders need to remember.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...