Earlier this summer, the Swedish Air Force dropped a laser-guided bomb on a forest fire to help suppress the flames. Now there’s a proposal for the United States to do the same, using the might of the U.S. Air Force to fight America’s raging forest fires via bombs and sonic booms. Bombers that have attacked targets in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq could instead strike targets in the continental United States—this time saving lives and property.
As the Earth's climate changes, wildfire season in the western United States has grown from a summertime concern into a year-round struggle. Higher temperatures have meant, , “severe droughts, meaning more dry fuel, as well as more intense heat waves”. The conditions set the stage for more, larger fires throughout the year. The trend will threaten people, property, and natural spaces, not to mention push the need for government firefighting services to unprecedented levels.
Clearly it's time for new and crazy-sounding ideas. Last month, the Swedish government, battling wildfires of its own, dropped a GBU-49 laser guided bomb on a remote forest fire. F-15 Strike Eagle Weapon System Officer Mike Benitez, writing in War on the Rocks, using B-1 bombers stuffed to the gills with bombs to battle wildfires on the American homefront.
The idea here is to snuff out fires the way you'd blow out birthday candles at the base. In Sweden, the shockwave from a single bomb snuffed out flames within a 100-yard radius of the impact point. So, Benitez reasons, why not load up a heavy strategic bomber with up to 84 bombs and do some serious firefighting?
Benitez chose the B-1 for his hypothetical scenario not only because of its bomb-carrying capability, but for the same reason the heavy bomber became a close air support platform of choice in Afghanistan: its long range translated into persistence over the battlefield, enabling the big bomber to hang around above friendly forces and bomb the Taliban for hours. The B-1 could do donuts in the skies over a wildfire as firefighters on the ground work out the best way to tackle it.
The B-1 wouldn’t carry just any bomb, either, but ordinance that was designed for firefighting. Most bombs use a steel casing that fragments into deadly shrapnel, but this would be unnecessary (and dangerous) when fighting fires. A firefighting bomb would use a combustible casing that would disintegrate on impact. Ideally the bomb would use a thermobaric warhead, one that kills via overpressure, as it generates even more powerful blast waves than traditional high-explosive bombs.
The B-1 method is theoretically doable but could be too expensive and dangerous. If that’s the case, then perhaps a big bomber like the B-1, or many smaller jets, could instead fly low and fast over wildfires, using the pressure waves from sonic booms to snuff out fires. As Benitez points out, an aircraft will generate a sonic boom along the length of its flight path at a rate of one mile per thousand feet. This could beat out wildfires over a wide area, and could be repeated as many times as necessary.
Benitez’s firefighting bomb proposal is a bold one and bound to take some flak. The idea of using bombers to do anything but fight a war, especially on American soil, takes some getting used to. Although expensive, the increasing scale and frequency of wildfires in the United States could make them more attractive—especially when firefighting bombers have the potential to reverse a deadly and destructive fire within mere minutes.
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