Colorado's wildfire has exploded into an "epic firestorm," in the words of Colorado Springs fire chief Richard Brown. Over 30,000 people have evacuated, and already hundreds of homes have been consumed. Ironically, the U.S. Air Force Academy has also been evacuated, at the very time that Colorado desperately needs more Air Force C-130s to fight the massive fire.
A C-130 fitted with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) can drop 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant material in 5 seconds, and reload in just 15 minutes. This tempo is crucial to containing wildfires like the one devastating Colorado Springs. However, of a current fleet of nearly 380 C-130s, only eight can be fitted with the MAFFS—and four of them are already in the skies over Colorado. With another fire looming in the north of the state, there is no excess capacity to help protect civilian areas. That means thousands of exhausted firefighters on the ground are without enough of the crucial support they need to control the fires.
All this raises concerns about President Obama’s defense budget, which cuts 65 C-130s from the fleet over the next four years. While that will leave 318 C-130s, the demands on the fleet are not shrinking in Afghanistan or other places. Nor did the Air Force have much choice in the matter.
The Air Force took the brunt of Pentagon budget cuts in the 2013 budget, shrinking by 4 percent (or roughly $4 billion dollars), after having a flat budget since 2004. Since 2001, over 500 aircraft have been retired, and another 300 will be scrapped by 2017. All this is happening while demand for the Air Force increases: The service flew approximately 400 sorties per day in Afghanistan and Iraq during 2011, while also fighting in Libya and delivering thousands of tons of disaster relief aid to Japan after its earthquake and tsunami. C-130s have been central to all these operations, and the proposed cuts will reduce airlift capacity among all the Air Force's components: active, reserve, and guard. Sequestration would be even worse, mandating equal percentage cuts down to the program level across the service, with no flexibility for Air Force leadership to target the cuts.
But as the wildfire in Colorado shows, readiness and flexibility are sometimes needed at home as much as abroad. Cutting more C-130s puts a greater strain on the entire Air Force fleet. It means fewer planes will be available for possible conversion to the MAFFS configuration. And that means that as hundreds of houses burn in Colorado, only eight planes can be called upon to help the thousands of firefighters on the ground. America should not have to make such tradeoffs: We can fight both aggressors and fires smarter and better, but only if we do it increasingly from the sky.
Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.