The Department of Navy has announced plans to update its training and testing programs at the Mariana Islands Range Complex to include the use of explosives and active sonar — a practice rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court in a ruling last year.
“The type and level of activities included in the proposed action account for fluctuations in training and testing to be able to meet evolving or emergent requirements,” the Navy said in its Aug. 1 announcement of its plan to prepare a supplement to the 2015 final environmental impact statement for the Mariana Islands Training and Testing.
The supplemental EIS, according to the Navy, “will propose changes to the tempo and types of training and testing activities, accounting for the introduction of new technologies, the evolving nature of international events, advances in war fighting doctrine and procedures, and changes in the organization of vessels, aircraft, weapon systems, and military personnel.”
The proposed action is in line with the military’s goal to maintain a combat-ready force “capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom,” the Navy said.
The training area covers the existing Mariana Islands Range Complex, areas on the high seas to the north and west of the Mariana Islands Range Complex, a transit corridor between the Mariana Islands Range Complex and the Hawaii Range Complex starting at the International Date Line, as well as Apra Harbor and select Navy pierside and harbor locations.
“Activities include the use of active sound navigation and ranging (sonar) and explosives while employing marine species protective mitigation measures,” the Navy said.
The sonar system generates slow-rolling sound waves topping out at around 235 decibels and was first developed by the Navy to detect enemy submarines.
Environmentalists have been protesting the use of sonar, which they say harms the marine life.
In a ruling issued on March 17, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court held that the Navy’s peacetime use of sonar is not in compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The appellate court’s decision was based on the lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council against officials of the Navy, the Department of Commerce and the National Marine and Fisheries Service.
In the Aug. 1 announcement, the Navy said it would assess the potential environmental impacts associated with ongoing and proposed military readiness activities conducted within the study area. Resources to be evaluated include marine mammals, sea turtles, essential fish habitat, and threatened and endangered species.
“As part of this process the (Navy) will seek the issuance of regulatory permits and authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act to support training and testing requirements within the Study Area, beyond 2020, thereby ensuring critical Department of Defense requirements are met,” the Navy said. “While simulators provide early skill repetition at the basic operator level and enhance teamwork, there is no substitute for live training and testing in a realistic environment.”.
Public comment period on the Navy’s proposed changes to the 2015 final EIS began on Aug. 1 and ends on Sept. 15.
The supplemental EIS is being prepared to support ongoing and future activities conducted at sea and on Farallon de Medinilla beyond 2020, according to the Navy.
In March, the Federal Aviation Authority approved the expansion of the military training range on Farallon de Medinilla to upgrade the island’s capability to support the use of advanced weapons systems. The expansion took effect on July 22, allowing the Navy to use wider airspace for its training exercises on the tiny island located 45 nautical miles north of Saipan.
“This action expands the restricted airspace at Farallon De Medinilla Island by designating a new area, R-7201A, that surrounds the existing R-7201. R-7201A encompasses that airspace between a 3 nautical mile radius and a 12-NM radius of lat. 16°01′04″ N., long. 146°03′31″ E,” according to FAA’s new rule announcement posted on the Federal Register last month.
The new restricted airspace, according to FAA, “provides the required airspace to conduct military training scenarios using air-to-ground ordnance delivery, naval gunfire, lasers and special operations training. This change will accommodate Department of the Navy training involving the use of advanced weapons systems which the current R-7201A airspace does not sufficiently and safely provide.”