By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I was doing the manly guy thing and attending the local gun show, when the person I was with got a call directing him to get back to the Air Force base ASAP. There was a fire burning off the south end of the air base headed for the perimeter fence.

Southwest Oklahoma has gone for over 120 days with no measurable precipitation, and everything was dried up and waiting to burn. It was unseasonably warm and there were winds up to fifty MPH blowing. All flying operations were shut down so the flight line, fire fighting equipment and personal could be dispatched off base to support the local fire department.

The fire damaged the power system to the base and by mid-afternoon the entire base was without electricity. At first you did not even notice. It was a very warm and sunny Sunday, with Sunday being the important factor here. We live on an Air Force training base and routinely there is no flying training on Sunday. Had this fire happened in the middle of a training week, it would have created issues going all the way up to Air Staff at the Pentagon.

All branches of the military constantly bring new troops into the service, which means training never stops and an unforeseen interruption of that training adversely impacts schedules that were set up months if not years ago. We call it the training pipeline. You push raw recruits straight off the streets of civilian life into this pipeline and on a set schedule you produce a new pilot, cop or medic. Where that new troop is going to be stationed after successfully completing training is also already factored in.

Military training is a business and just like the civilian world there is an established process that is followed in order to produce the correct "widget" on time and to needed specifications. In the military's case the "widget" is a Solider, Marine, Sailor or Airman.

The military got into total quality management (TQM) back in the early 1990s. One of the first things you learn in TQM is everything is a process and your goal it to improve that process. Make it better for the military and for the people in the military who daily work these processes. In order to improve the process you have to learn and establish that you have a profound understanding of the process.

Wal-Mart is an excellent civilian example of a company that has a profound understanding of a process. Their process is getting consumer items manufactured in a timely manner and then on the shelves for the buying public to purchase. Make it all happen and do it just in time to meet the needs of the consumer.

A consumer runs the spectrum of the shopper at a grocery store, to the Department of Defense buying tanks & planes and training new troops. There is an old saying, "it runs like a well oiled machine." the machine being a correctly functioning process.

But what happens if the process it interrupted either by accident or on purpose? The fire damages the flow of electricity and stopped the base cold. I am going to assume it was an accident, but what if it wasn't. What if someone planned to set the fire as a terrorist training exercise, to see just how much damage to military operations one little match could produce?

It was a warm day when the fire occurred, but what if, instead of Altus AFB in sunny Oklahoma, it was Minot AFB in freezing North Dakota? There was very little actual damage done to the base, but it shut off the power and daily life changed in that moment. It was a little spooky walking the streets of base housing in total darkness. Imagine if the power issue was for the entire Oklahoma City metro area and it went of for days because the bad guys had severely damaged the power distribution system for that city.

With the base power off my entire evening routine was completely disrupted and I was prepared for it. I had lanterns, candles, flashlights and even a generator, but my cable was out and I missed the opening episode of HBO's Big Love. Al-Quaida is not just guys dressed from the 1700s living in caves, they have people who understand and plan to exploit our just-in-time supply system. Cut off the power or stop the supply chain and truly all emergencies become local.

Back to Naval & Military History

Copyright 2006, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.