On the eve of war games in early May in the Gulf of Alaska, officials at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage are preparing for the arrival of several thousand military personnel in an area some 80 nautical miles from Cordova.
NE17 is presented by U.S. Pacific Command and Alaskan Command as one in a series of exercises this year to prepare joint forces to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Major participating units include the U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, U.S. Army Pacific, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Material Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and U.S. Naval Reserve.
The exercise is designed, they have said at community meetings, conferences and tribal engagement sessions, to sharpen participants’ tactical combat skills, improve command, control and communication relationships, and to develop interoperable plans and programs across the joint force.
According to Air Force Captain Anastasia Schmidt, director of public affairs, for Alaskan NORAD Region/Alaskan Command/11th Air Force, at JBER, these exercises are conducted with an extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life, and the Northern Edge training in the Gulf of Alaska has been conducted for many decades without major harm to the environment.
In fact, Schmidt said, during NE15 the Navy was allowed use of up to 26,000 non-explosive gun shells, and used 15, allows 11,400 rounds of small arms fire and used 2,100 and allowed use of 858 sinking ordnance, but used none.
Marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner, of Anchorage, a former University of Alaska professor, would like more assurance, which, Steiner said, would come from having independent observers and real-time environmental monitoring from aboard military vessels during these training exercises, an activity that military officials said they can’t allow that for security reasons.
Steiner said he has little faith in the Navy’s mitigation program or their observers.
“In NE15, these trained observers couldn’t distinguish a baleen whale (mysticete) from a tooth whale (odontocete,” Steiner said. “And that they will not agree to an environmental study just before, during and immediately after NE17 shows they do not really care, or do not really want to know the impacts.”
It’s the impact of Mid Frequency Active Sonar that Steiner said he is more worried about, particularly since military officials declined to release information requested in his Freedom of Information Act request on the length of time that sonar was active during NE15.
Steiner also contends that NE17 would be much less of a concern if it was rescheduled for winter months, when the migratory marine mammals, seabirds and fish are not in the area. “That is really a no-brainer, and DOD continues to resist such,” he said.
Another reason to move these training exercises to winter is that the fishing industry, maritime industry and oil industry all work offshore in Alaska in winter, so why can’t the Navy find a two week period to do their exercises in winter as well, Steiner asked. “Rescheduling to winter may not reduce risk and impact to beaked whales, perhaps the most vulnerable to the MFA sonar, as they may not be as migratory, but little is known about the migrations of these mysterious whale species,” he said. The schedule change would also reduce or eliminate risk to all other migratory marine mammals, seabirds, and fish, he said.
Schmidt responded by saying that the environmental impact statement done in advance of these exercises only allows for the training to occur at certain times of the year. “That’s what we were approved for,” she said.
Another issue is the weather. Military officials have a very high tolerance for the amount of risk they are willing to accept, and that level is lower for training exercises than for actual military warfare in order to complete the training objectives without having to cancel because of the weather, she said. The odds of the weather being within those parameters is higher under the present scenario than it would be in winter, she said.