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AF firefighting aid may see setbacks under cuts

Feb. 21, 2013 - 05:47PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 21, 2013 - 05:47PM  |  
Aircrews use a C-130 Hercules equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System to drop fire retardant on a section of the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., June 26, 2012.
Aircrews use a C-130 Hercules equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System to drop fire retardant on a section of the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., June 26, 2012. (Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher / Air Force)
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ORLANDO, Fla. - The Air Force may not be able to help fight wildfires this year if massive defense cuts take effect next month, the head of Air Mobility Command told reporters Feb. 21 at the National Air Force Association convention.

The U.S. Forest Service only has a handful of planes, so the Air Force was called on to help stop the blazes during last year's severe wildfire season. Four airmen were killed in July when their C-130 crashed while battling a fire in South Dakota.

This year, the Defense Department is facing $500 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years if Congress cannot agree how to trim the deficit by March 1.

Because Air Mobility Command would still be required to transport government officials, support troops in Afghanistan and move the nation's nuclear stockpile when needed, other missions would become "negotiable," said Gen. Paul Selva.

Firefighting may be one of those missions because it requires a "significant" amount of training to make sure crews can do it safely, Selva said at the AFA's winter symposium in Orlando.

"We may have to take the risk of not having those crews available because we simply don't have the money to train them," he said.

Sequestration would also affect C-17 continuation training and KC-135 aerial refueling missions within the continental United States, Selva said.

"So it's conceivable that up to a third of the C-17 fleet and almost all of the KC-135 fleet would be reduced to basic mission readiness, which means the pilot or the co-pilot gets a takeoff and a landing every 30 to 45 days," he said. "By the way, the takeoff is beneficial to the landing: I can certify them for takeoffs in the simulator, I cannot certify them for landings in the simulator."

That means Selva would have to accept the risks if he needed to send minimally proficient crews on a mission, he said.

If the sequestration cuts take effect, fewer air crews would be available to support operations in Afghanistan, Selva said.

"Today, essentially any crew is available to be tasked and I can manage their deployment ratios, their time away from home, their time in training and I can keep the pipeline open to season and grow new crews," he said.

However, it is unlikely air crews would go to Afghanistan and on longer deployments, Selva said. Every day, planes flow from the United States to Afghanistan via Europe.

"That smaller pool of crews will spend more time away from home but they'll spend it in that flow, so for shorter periods of time," he said. "I don't intend to, unless I have no other option, to increase the length of the deployments of crews that go over and stay."

Selva likened the approaching sequestration to the second half of the Super Bowl, when the lights went out for 34 minutes.

"The two teams that came back on the field, while they were wearing the same uniforms, had the same names, were running the same plays, were not the same players," he said. "The momentum in that game shifted and it took nearly a quarter for the momentum to return to where it was when the half started.

"So as we negotiate the next several months, if the fiscal uncertainty becomes fiscal reality, and I have to make decisions like grounding parts of the fleet to save money, curtailing air crew training to save money, furloughing civilians to save money, those all induce a level of uncertainty that changes the momentum of who we are and it puts us in a position where it will take a substantial amount of time measured in months to recover."

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