Policy

These Planes Will Fight Fires, If You Can Wait 10 Years

Stalled Air Force conversions show how a seemingly straightforward job can take years in the arcane federal acquisition system

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spearheaded the recent legislative mandates to convert the transport planes into fire tankers. It’s taking too long, she says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In 2013, Congress ordered the Air Force to convert seven Coast Guard transport planes into firefighting tanker aircraft, but now the first of the planes may not be ready to fight fires for several more years, nearly a decade after the initial plan was launched. 

The story of the seven planes illustrates how a seemingly straightforward job can take years in the arcane federal acquisition system, even when the equipment is a matter of life and death. 

The disclosure of the program’s lengthening schedule comes as California endures its deadliest fire season ever. Experts say climate change will increase the frequency and severity of such conflagrations.

 

The modified HC-130H aircraft, which the Coast Guard no longer needs, were originally slated to go to the U.S. Forest Service under a mandate in the fiscal 2014 defense authorization law. But after years of delays in implementing that plan, the Trump administration decided late last year that it didn’t make fiscal sense for the Forest Service to operate the planes and instead said the service should continue to rely on contractors for its aircraft, officials said.

So Washington enacted a Plan B earlier this year. The fiscal 2019 defense authorization requires the aircraft modifications, which had barely begun, to be completed and the planes then be delivered — this time to Cal Fire, California’s fire-protection agency.

But the first plane will not be delivered to fight California fires until at least 2021, if all goes well, according to a government official familiar with the acquisition. The Air Force has not yet issued a request for proposals for the contract, so it unclear when that timetable would actually begin.

The Air Force normally takes at least a year to conduct a competition and award a contract, the official said, then approximately an additional year and a half will elapse before the first transport plane is retrofitted with new bomb bay doors to allow release of the fire retardant and heavier wings to sustain the loads.

That is too long, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spearheaded the recent legislative mandates to convert the transport planes into fire tankers. 

“We’re working with Cal Fire and the Air Force to expedite the retrofitting and transfer of these planes,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “The deadly blazes we’re seeing now highlight the need for more options to rapidly respond to wildfires. We must get this done as quickly as possible.” 

Slowly arriving reinforcements

The story of the ill-fated efforts to transform the seven planes into fire-fighting assets is of critical importance today as California reels from forest fires that have taken at least 79 lives, with nearly 700 people still listed as missing. 

The addition of the seven planes to Cal Fire’s fleet of 40 fixed-wing tanker aircraft would expand it by 18 percent.

The C-130s can drop four times the amount of fire retardant as the next-largest Cal Fire tanker, congressional aides said.

After the defense authorization in 2013 ordered the modifications to start, it took the Air Force two years to award the contract, which isn't uncommon for such competitions.

Then a contract protest occurred and the competition had to be restarted, adding nearly two more years. Then came the Trump administration’s decision, communicated to Congress last December, to jettison the plan to send the planes to the Forest Service. 

Congress this year stepped in again and mandated that the Air Force finish the job and send the planes to California. 

So far, though, none of the planes has been fully modified, aides said. 

Of the seven planes, no modifications have begun at all on four of them, and one plane has only recently begun the conversion to a firefighting aircraft. The other two planes have been temporarily outfitted as tankers with a system that is less capable than the planned configuration, and they were used to fight the Carr Fire in California earlier this year. 

‘Absolutely vital’ assets

How soon the fully retrofitted planes will arrive in the state is still to be determined. The 2021 estimate for the first of those planes assumes that all goes according to plan, and that has not been the case to date. 

Meanwhile, fires may become harder to fight as climate change worsens.

In August, 10 members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson noting that the fiscal 2014 defense authorization required the Defense Department to transfer funds as necessary to modify the HC-130H aircraft. 

Their letter came as a record-breaking year of fires was about to get worse. 

“These firefighting aircraft are absolutely vital to California’s efforts to combat the increasingly deadly wildfires that threaten our constituents,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to comply with the law as expeditiously as possible, and we ask that you provide us with regular updates as the planes are being modified and transferred to the State of California.”

The letter was signed by Feinstein and fellow Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, as well as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The other signatories were GOP Reps. Ken CalvertDoug LaMalfa and Tom McClintock, plus Democratic Reps. Mike ThompsonJohn Garamendi and Jared Huffman.

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