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Officials with the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and Alaska Command descended on Cordova on Oct. 11 to deliver an after-action report on Northern Edge 2017 (NE17) military training exercises conducted in the Gulf of Alaska from May 1- 12.
Navy representatives said there are no indications of environmental impacts following NE17 in the gulf, nor were they aware of any interactions or conflicts with other users of the area, including fishing or shipping vessels, or aircraft.
The biggest surprise that came to light during the presentation to the city council and residents may have been that NE17 used less ordnance than allowed in the National Marine Fisheries Service supplemental environmental impact statement, released July 2016.
“NE17 had a relatively small amount of Naval activity,” said Alex Stone, an environmental planner with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, from Joint-Base Pearl Harbor-HIckham, Hawaii. “What we actually did, versus what we were approved to do, was much less. We didn’t use explosive ordnance, we used small arms practice munitions, and there were no impacts to other users. No marine mammals were sighted within the required mitigation zones, so no power down or shutdown of sonar was needed. There were 2,880 hours of shipboard lookouts during NE17’s 12 days of training.”
Officials also said the exercises put $28 million into the state economy.
The Navy entourage also included Rear Adm. Gary Mayes, Commander, Navy Region Northwest, Naval Base Kitsap, in Bremerton, Wash.; Timothy Croft, director, Joint Exercises Division, Alaskan Command, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson; Rear Adm. John Korka, Pacific Fleet civil engineer and commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; and Dr. Jerome Montague, Native Affairs and Natural Resources Advisor Alaskan Command, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
U.S. Pacific Command sponsored the exercise, which was planned and operated by the Alaska Command, with support from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
NE17 was designed to replicate challenging scenarios potentially faced by the military, Stone said.
“The Navy conducted environmental planning and numerous studies, with the goal of understanding the environment and protecting it, by minimizing any environmental impacts,” he said.
Six thousand military personnel, 160 aircraft, two Navy destroyers, a Navy supply ship, one U.S. Coast Guard vessel, five civilian fishing boats from Juneau, and numerous virtual participants from multiple U.S. locations participated in the 12-day training exercise, which allowed military forces to test 26 experimentation initiatives, Korka said.
Officials did not elaborate on what the experimentation initiatives were.
Alaska’s size and range infrastructure facilitated realistic scenarios including vast distances that modern military forces face, according to the after-action report. Military personnel practiced and refined challenging joint interoperability tactics, techniques and procedures.
Training activities included coordination and integration with joint forces, practicing anti-submarine exercises with ships, practicing visiting, boarding, and search and seizure techniques, training in aircraft combat maneuvering between land and maritime areas, and practice in small arms gunnery.
The exercise lasted 12 days, with minimum active sonar use. No live bombs, missiles or explosive 5-inch gun rounds were used.
After carefully weighing future strategic and operational requirements, and environmental consequences of the proposed action, as well as comments received from government agencies, Alaska Native tribes and the public, the Navy elected to proceed with their first alternative in the supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS): One annual, large-scale 21-day carrier strike group exercise between April and October, with no sinking exercise.
There were no bombs or missiles used during NE17. Training ordnance or expended materials used included 28 inert, non-explosive naval gun shells; 2,500 small arms rounds; five signal flares; six floating targets; and no sonobuoys.
The actual amount of sonar used is currently classified information, but officials said a very minimal amount of sonar was used.
And, according to the report, there was little overlap with fisheries management areas during the exercises.
“Mid-frequency active sonar is not heard by most fish species, including key commercial species such as salmon and groundfish,” Stone said. “Only a few fish species can hear sonar, for example, herring, but are not likely to be affected from sonar due to the fish’s inability to swim at ship speed and remain close to the bow of the ship for hours of exposure.”
Representatives of many of the 11 coastal communities, including the Kodiak Island Borough, Cities of Seward, Seldovia, Valdez, Cordova, Girdwood, Homer, Sitka, Tenakee Springs, Whitter and Kodiak, met with the Navy during the last two years. They asked to have NE17, and future training exercises not be held between April through October. The event took place in May, a prime time for commercial salmon migration, and spring bird and marine mammal migrations.
“The timing is what bothers me, and probably the 11 communities,” said former Cordova Mayor Kelley Weaverling. “Don’t do (the exercises) at this time of year. The fisheries are important. If 11 different communities ask for you to change the date, then not only listen, but do something about it, and change the date. This is critical and sensitive.”
Korka said that many dynamics come into play when deciding on the optimal time for the exercises, including availability of Navy vessels and weather.
“The message about timing has been heard loud and clear,” Korka said. “We’ve done a lot of outreach and mitigation. If it becomes between national defense and the environment, national defense takes a higher precedence.”
Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said he thought that the Navy did a good job reporting the actual ordnance used and other details of their training.
“There were many thoughtful comments and questions from the public, including appreciation for their service, and protection of Alaskan communities and waters, a reminder that care should be taken not to destroy that which we defend,” Koplin said.
“I think everyone would have liked to hear more about NE19 and plans for the timing and location, but the formal planning process has not commenced,” he said. “I appreciated the commitment to hold a minimum of two outreach communications meetings in Cordova before the NE19.”
Planning for Northern Edge 2019 will begin during an initial planning conference sometime during this upcoming winter, Korka said.
Meanwhile, Korka said, tribal and community outreach will continue.