Friday, March 14, 2014

Northern Command boss worried by cut to aerial firefighting wing

U.S. Northern Command boss Gen. Chuck Jacoby said he's concerned that proposed cuts at Peterson Air Force Base could hurt aerial firefighting efforts.

Quizzed by Colorado's Democratic Sen. Mark Udall at a Thursday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Jacoby said he's worried that pulling a squadron from the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson could leave too few flight crews to drop retardant ahead of future fires.

"My biggest concern would be crews," Jacoby said. "Those are terrific crews, fearless men and women. It's as tough flying as any flying."

Under an Air Force budget plan, the wing would lose 200 airmen and four of its 12 C-130 aircraft. The cut would eliminate the 52nd Airlift Squadron, the reserve wing's lone squadron of full-time airmen.

Planes from the wing helped battle the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and the 2013 Black Forest fire, the most destructive wildfires in Colorado's history.

Jacoby said while the wing would retain the same number of aerial firefighting systems - devices inserted into the cargo bay of the C-130s to disperse retardant - the unit could lose airmen crucial to making them work.

"I want to make sure that squadrons aren't disadvantaged by loss of folks that form those crews," Jacoby said. "So, I will be talking to the Air Force about this one as soon as I get the chance."

How the cuts would impact aerial firefighting is far from clear.

The 302nd is responsible for about 40 percent of the Air Force's firefighting effort in recent years. But firefighting is a small part of the 302nd's total job, which is mainly focused on hauling cargo and passengers.

With C-130-equipped airlift wings flying an average of about 4,000 hours per year, firefighting represents a small percentage of their work. In its busiest year, 2012, the 302nd made 400 drops to control fires in 10 states, using 334 hours of flight time.

The impact of the cuts on aerial firefighting crews also is unclear. The bulk of the firefighting is carried out by squadrons in the wing that aren't on the block for cuts. The wing has said a handful of airmen in the 52nd are trained in aerial firefighting.

But those full-time airmen in the 52nd conduct most of the wing's transport and cargo missions, which could put a squeeze on its sister squadrons that do more of the firefighting.

Congress, which hasn't begun to consider the 2015 defense spending plan, must sign off on the cuts.

Udall said he'll twist arms to keep the planes and crews in Colorado Springs.

During the hearing Udall credited the air crews and other military efforts against fires and floods in the state with limiting damage and saving lives.

"Colorado owes you a great debt," Udall told Jacoby.

Jacoby said troops did a good job assisting during Colorado disasters for Northern Command, which coordinates Defense Department response to natural disasters and defends the nation from terrorist and other threats. The military had Fort Carson helicopters over the Black Forest fire shortly after it started.

But it could have been better.

"Senator we felt really good about being up in the air in an hour, but if you lost your home in that hour, that's not fast enough," Jacoby told Udall. "We to continue to refine the process."

The command plans changes in 2014 as fire season approaches. The general said he's seeking closer coordination with the federal National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

He also wants to assign Northern Command officers to fire incident command teams so firefighters have a better understanding of available military resources and faster access to them.

The military resources available will change, too, with Northern Command bringing drones to the fight in 2014.

"The old-fashioned 5,000 infantrymen with shovels and boots, we're going to add to that with bulldozers, UAVs with infrared sensors and other capabilities," Jacoby said.

With the ability to loiter above fires for long periods of time, staring down with cameras that include heat-sensing infrared capabilities, drones could help fire commanders examine the situation in real time and devise better plans to stop advancing flames.

"It's all about being to identify a requirement and answer the call of our partners as quickly as possible," Jacoby said.