One Overreach Too Far
U.S. Navy representatives rolled into Pacific Beach, Washington, for a public meeting on Wednesday, November 19, hoping to sell a gathering of Olympic Peninsula residents on the moving parts of NAS Whidbey’s ambitious new plan for expanding electronic warfare training. It was also an opportunity for locals to comment on what many attendees already considered an overreach of major proportions and consequences, with too many aircraft dispersing way too many electrons over or near their communities and the Olympic National Park.
After more than two and a half hours, questions still far outnumbered cogent responses in defense of electromagnetic battle management. In spite of a non-stop litany of concerns regarding the current science on the adverse effects of electromagnetic radiation, blatant omissions of recent peer-reviewed data from the Navy’s Environmental Assessment (EA), and inevitable jet fighter intrusions into pristine Olympic wilderness and near communities, the visiting tag team stayed on message and held fast. Before packing up their Power Point and escaping for home, this carload knew they had just gotten hammered, but at least had time to mull it over on the long drive back to the drawing board. Sleepy little Pacific Beach was obviously “readiness training” weary, and there were no signs that anyone in town, or the rest of the peninsula for that matter, would be rolling over.
It could have been different. For more than 40 years, tactical electronic warfare crews have been calling Navy Whidbey home and conducting training flights in the Grumman EA6B Prowler in the vicinity of the Olympic National Park or just offshore. A sophisticated workhorse, the Prowler had been a fixture in the Pacific Northwest since first deploying to Vietnam in 1972. For years it was the only operational electronic warfare aircraft in the US military’s inventory, with overflights commonplace in coastal waters, the San Juan Islands, and even eastern Washington. Apart from frequent noise complaints generated from an occasional need for speed, residents of the Olympic Peninsula got along to get along. Until the Boeing EA18G Growler, the fleet’s “Next Generation Jammer,” arrived.
With more and more of the versatile, supersonic Growlers boring holes in skies over Washington State, Navy planners saw the need for more diverse readiness exercises. So this summer NAS Whidbey finalized plans for an expansion of electronic warfare (EW) training, ramping up daily sorties to detect and jam mobile “adversaries” closer to home, rather than sites at Mountain Home Air Force Base. The bad news, the electromagnetic emissions would be coming from vehicle mounted emitter trucks roaming 15 fixed locations in the Olympic National Forest, on US Forest Service (USFS) and Department of Natural Resources land. Further complicating this proposed expansion, the Navy’s July 2014 Special Use Permit application with USFS only contained provisions for the construction and operation of ground-based operations, excluding any discussion of overflights, jet noise, jet emissions, and hazards from Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) weaponry.
An anemic public outreach in August only made matters worse. Navy Public Affairs chose to limit newspaper notifications of the AEA training expansion to only two newspapers west of the Cascades - the Seattle Times and an Aberdeen daily. Local communities, including those most impacted by the Growler training range expansion - Forks, Port Townsend, Sequim, Port Angeles and others - were clueless until the public comment period had nearly concluded. Only after a woman in Forks noticed a small flyer on a post office window did the snowball of consternation get rolling with letters to editors and online articles. During this month alone the USFS web site has been deluged with more than 2,400 comments. While Navy Public Affairs had intentionally left most Peninsula communities out of the initial loop regarding AEA emissions, now the eventuality of dozens of daily low-level supersonic capable fighters screaming through the National Park or near their homes next year is common knowledge. Had the permit been granted last summer by overly accommodating USFS decision makers, the noisiest, stressor producing aircraft in the Navy inventory, would have been unstoppable.
Now things are getting personal. In 1970 I earned my wings as an Airborne Electronic Warfare Officer, deploying to Vietnam in 1971-72, and was familiar then with the potential for environmental damage by our electromagnetic countermeasures. During any operational readiness training on the Fallon (Nevada) Range Complex, our crews were required to “transmit in the blind” on air traffic control frequencies that we were jamming because our emissions invariably lit up air traffic control radars. Much more recently in Iraq, according to Air & Space Magazine, “courtesy burns” were provided by Prowlers on request that would pre-fly the routes of truck convoys to trigger buried explosives. And today there is no denying that such “electric” war jets pack heat, or “nominal” wattage, according to a recent communication with Navy Whidbey Public Affairs.
While the Olympic Peninsula has been used for years for readiness training by EA6B Prowlers, the Navy's recent Environmental Assessment of the EA18G Growler’s possible impact is sorely lacking new science regarding possible adverse effects on wildlife. While dismissing environmental considerations is bad enough, possibly subjecting the government to future financial liabilities, omissions by the Navy of adequate information for USFS decision makers of the impact of thousands of annual low-level flights of arguably the noisiest, stressor producing aircraft in the Navy inventory on the Olympic National Park environs is disingenuous at best.
At a minimum the Navy assessment cries out for an independent Environmental Impact Statement before the USFS is allowed to unleash these electromagnetic war games on steroids on the Northwest's most pristine wilderness and surrounding communities. Ironically, none of this devastation to our unspoiled heritage has to happen. This jet aircraft is already a dinosaur, like my tactical electronic warfare aircraft and its offspring the EA6B. As Growler squadrons prepare to formally eviscerate the ecosystem of the Olympic Peninsula, desperately in search of an era in which to justify their readiness training, aviation is moving away from manned aircraft, even exploring unmanned carrier aviation. AEA simulators might even be more challenging for training purposes, certainly more earth friendly.
Friendlier still would be to explore an additional alternative not listed in this or any other military assessment, and that is a contingency for diplomatic solutions to conflicts. Additional overreaches like the Pacific Northwest Electronic Warfare Range and elsewhere would be untenable, and surely result in a more sustainable future not only for the Peninsula, but the planet.
It was environmental historian T.H. Watkins that wrote, “Love for the land for its own sake and for what it holds of beauty and joy and spiritual redemption that will make wilderness not a battlefield but a revelation." Clearly it was this sentiment, or more accurately this ethos that filled the Pacific Beach meeting room like coastal fog during the clash with the Navy visitors, but it was a local woman’s challenge to the gathering at the end of that exchange that hit home with me and resonates still:
“We need to determine as a nation, or as a group of people living in this area, do we want a National park, or a military training ground.”
To most, the choice continues to be clear.
The author of this piece is Veterans For Peace Lifetime Member, Past VFP Board Secretary and Naval Aviation Veteran Gene Marx. He is also an active member of the CPL Jonathan Santos Memorial Veterans For Peace Chapter 111 and has been living in Bellingham, Washington with his wife, Victoria, since both retired from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004.