Too proud to accept Russia’s help

Why has U.S. spurned Russia’s fire-fighting aircraft? A Russian Ilyushin IL-76 departs Kennedy Space Center in Florida after dropping off cargo in 1999.

By Michael Moran MSNBC

NEW YORK, Aug. 9 — Two years ago, during a particularly bad year for wildfires in Florida, I began getting e-mail from a reader who sensed a scandal in the smoke-filled winds. As U.S. firefighters struggled with blazes in 10 states, a Russian offer to lend the United States two of its IL-76 tanker aircraft — by far the largest in the world — was spurned. But now, with a new wildfire threatening unprecedented destruction, the United States has snubbed Russia again. What, exactly, is going on?

THE ILYUSHIN IL-76 is known to military and civilian aviation buffs as the huge workhorse of Russian aviation. Since the early 1970s, the four-engine jet has been the main Soviet/Russian military transport and a major force in international cargo hauling since the USSR collapsed. But it’s also the largest firefighting weapon in the world. A single IL-76 tanker can drop 11,000 gallons of water in one trip - about four times as much as the largest tanker in the U.S. arsenal, the C-130 Hercules. Ask any firefighters who don’t wear a tie to work and they’ll tell you that’s an asset they want on their side.

In May, when fires threatened the Los Alamos nuclear plant, Russia again offered the IL-76 for the cause. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) considered the offer. But in the end, once again, the United States said no. That’s when several of my readers, again outraged at what they perceived as America putting its pride over the safety of its citizens, spammed me with mail about the Russian aircraft.


With 4 million acres consumed already this year and more to burn, why has the United States continued to say “Nyet?” It’s a question I put to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which is coordinating the national firefighting effort.

“The aircraft Russia is offering is new, and we don’t understand its technology or capabilities,” said Pat Entwistle, a fire information officer. “Also, they have non-English speaking crews and we haven’t figured out how to incorporate this plane into our system.”

Told that Russia has been offering this assistance for years, Entwistle said: “In the past, we have never had a situation that exceeded our capability to handle.”

Well, to me, “a situation that exceeds our capability to handle” is a pretty good definition of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be doing, no? Entwistle conceded the policy would probably be reviewed, but added “now is not the time. We’ve got our hands full just dealing with the fires.” She also said that previous assessments of the plane had found it “incompatible” with U.S. methods, though she failed to explain exactly how.


There certainly was ample time to learn how to use this exotic “new” Russian technology whereby a gigantic plane that first flew in 1974 drops water on a fire. Russia first made the IL-76 available to the U.S. in 1996. It tried again during the big Western blazes of ’97 and throughout Florida’s debacle in 1998.

A firefighter stays a step ahead of flames while setting a backfire this week at the Pechanga Fire southeast of Temecula, California.

The most recent cold shoulder turned to Russia came back in May, when the Los Alamos plant was evacuated. “We appreciate the goodwill ...,” FEMA emergency analyst David Passey told the Albuquerque Journal. “But we haven’t had a request for more aircraft and the Forest Service doesn’t appear to need them.”

Privately, several sources in the Forest Service and the Agriculture Department described a “minor debate” within their ranks over the usefulness of the aircraft. These sources - all of whom, incidentally, support using the big jet - said the official line rejecting the offer rests on the idea that a jet moves too quickly to drop water on downhill slopes. While this may be true, it ignores the usefulness of dropping such enormous quantities of water on uphill slopes (which, after all, simply entails approaching the mountain from the other direction) or on level land to help create firebreaks.


Back in Russia, the Ministry of Emergency Situations understandably is flabbergasted at all this. After years of being told their help is unwanted, the Russians are beginning to sense something more than the prickly pride of the U.S. Forest Service at work.

“Fear of competition,” is how Sergei Shoigu, who heads Russia’s version of FEMA, described the reticent American response.*

It’s not as though Moscow is offering to sell missiles to Cuba, after all. Even if they are a bit loopy in suspecting that America fears competition in the (non-existent) firefighting tanker market, it’s not difficult to see why this kind of reaction contributes to international misunderstandings.


Certainly, Ilyushin, makers of the IL-76, have more than humanitarian action on their minds. Like all of the great weapons makers of the former Soviet Union, Ilyushin has struggled to find new markets after its captive market of satellite and toady states collapsed. But unlike many of its Soviet sister firms, Ilyushin made something useful in peacetime: the IL-76. Helping former Soviet industry develop into civilian corporations is standard State Department boilerplate. Yet in this instance, where a need exists and a supplier readily available, American bureaucracy gets in the way.

Tom Robinson, a Florida-based firefighting consultant, has made the cause of the IL-76 as something of a personal crusade. Robinson represents Global Emergency Response (GER), a government and industry consortium of U.S., Canadian and Russian agencies that has tried for years to get the Russian aircraft onto American radar. He’s hardly a disinterested party - over the years he’s become something of a zealot on the jet’s behalf - but he’s got a point when he asserts that this issue has been grossly mismanaged.

Robinson thinks this resistance comes down to pure inertia. “Like any federal agency, they don’t want to change,” Robinson told me. “They’re comfortable using small planes and a group of private contractors. Now they have to adjust and they don’t like it.”

How many homes does it take to change U.S. Forest Service policy? How many thousands of firefighters - American, Canadian or Mexican - should be put at risk for the sake of a somewhat suspect ruling about this “new technology?”

Don’t tell me about it. Tell the Forest Service. The guys fighting the fires.

(formerly at