After years of complaining by Pentagon officials, Congress is easing some of
the environmental rules that limit how U.S. military services can train their
Both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed versions of the 2004
defense authorization bill granting the services a measure of relief from such
legislation. It is the second year in a row in which they have done so.
Military leaders have long argued that such changes are needed, because environmental
regulations are interfering with combat training.
The Defense Department has 25 million acres of land on military bases, explained
Raymond F. Dubois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.
“Now, this land is set aside by Congress specifically for military activities,”
he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 29th Annual Environmental
and Energy Symposium in Richmond, Va. But there is a problem, he added.
“Military training lands remain undeveloped in order to serve as maneuver
and live-impact areas or buffer zones,” Dubois said. Because the lands
are undeveloped, however, they become “attractive habitat for all manner
of flora and fauna.”
In fact, most military bases were established in remote areas before or during
World War II. As surrounding properties are developed, the bases are becoming
the last refuges for many endangered plants and animals, Dubois said. Defense
Department installations, in total, are home to about 300 protected species.
“The reason [the Marine Base at] Camp Pendleton has such an extensive
endangered species habitat is that largely in Southern California the critters
have no other place to go,” he said. “The urban sprawl ... is apparent
to anyone who flies at night from Los Angeles south to San Diego. All of a sudden,
you see a 17-mile black spot with no lights, surrounded by a blanket of light.”
That black spot is Camp Pendleton.
Under federal law, once the services discover endangered species on their facilities,
they must protect them, even if it means restricting military operations, the
Defense Department claims. Some examples:
- At Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army has been
ordered to protect trees for the red-cockaded woodpecker by restricting bivouacking,
live fire and digging of foxholes.
- A portion of the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, has been
designated “critical habitat” for an endangered species of grass,
which the Navy officials say could “severely compromise” ballistic
missile defense testing.
- Of 17 miles of beach at Camp Pendleton, only 1,500 meters can be used for
amphibious training because of environmental restrictions. A proposed critical
habitat under the Endangered Species Act would cover 57 percent of the installation.
- At Fort Lewis, Wash.—where two of the Army’s Striker Brigade Combat
Teams are taking shape—72 percent of the training land is designated a
critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl.
- A federal district court in San Francisco has restricted deployment of the
Navy’s new low-frequency sonar system—designed to detect a new generation
of quiet, diesel-powered submarines—because it has the “potential
to disturb” whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
- At the Nevada Test and Training Range, operated by Nellis Air Force Base,
the service has fenced target areas to protect the endangered Desert Tortoise.
As a result of such restrictions, “our available training lands are shrinking,”
Dubois said. The Defense Department’s 25 million acres “sounds like
a great amount, but the wildlife refuge system in this country is 95 million
... Congress is no longer setting aside large tracts of undeveloped land for
Meanwhile, Dubois said, “changes in war-fighting tactics require realistic
combat training over ever-larger areas.” As an example, he cited the Army’s
new Stryker combat vehicle.
“A fast-moving, highly lethal piece of equipment, the Stryker allows
soldiers to do more on the battlefield than we ever could with Humvees, Bradley
fighting vehicles or certainly the old M113 armored personnel carriers,”
Dubois said. “But an infantry unit with Strykers requires up to 10 times
as much training space as its predecessor.”
Faced with “an ever-increasing” need for training space and growing
environmental restrictions, the services “invented work-arounds,”
Some exercises are computer-simulated. In others, training rounds are substituted
for live fire. Sometimes, troops can not bivouac in the training area. In other
situations, ground, sea and air elements must train on different ranges.
“Now, what we see—after 25 years of work-arounds—is realistic
combat training being compromised,” Dubois said. “Soldiers do not
experience the battlefield conditioning, both physical and mental that they
should be experiencing. Our training has become, in essence, overly artificial.”
The value of realistic combat training has been evident in the war on terrorism,
Dubois said. He noted the experience of three soldiers, wounded in Iraq. Interviewed
at U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, each of the three
men attributed their survival to their training.
“At first, I was disoriented from the distraction of the gunfire,”
one soldier said. “But after a second, training kicked in, and training
took over and helped save my life and the lives of my men.”
During the 12-day battle of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, training also
“made the difference,” the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. John M.
Keane, told a Senate hearing. “Maneuver land and live-fire ranges are
essential elements in the training process,” he said. “Without them,
our soldiers cannot develop the confidence and skill demonstrated during Operation
The loss or restricted use of combat training ranges “inhibit our ability
to ‘train as we fight,’ degrade our combat readiness and will eventually
limit combat forces to fight only as they have trained,” said Gen. Robert
H. Foglesong, Air Force vice chief of staff.
“As pressures continue to grow, managing the operational and financial
risks without compromising our mission becomes increasingly difficult and costly,”
he told a Senate hearing. “Without action, we expect to see a continuing
erosion of the training environment.”
The Navy has a particularly “immediate” need to expand testing
and training with its low-frequency sonar, according to Adm. William J. Fallon,
vice chief of naval operations. This system—known as the Surveillance
Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active, or SURTASS LFA—is necessary
to protect against a submarine threat that “in some ways has become more
challenging than during the Cold War,” he said during a Senate hearing.
“Of the approximately 500 non-U.S. submarines in the world, almost half
that number are operated by non-allied nations,” Fallon said. “Of
greatest concern are the new, ultra-quiet diesel-electric submarines, armed
with deadly torpedoes and cruise missiles, being produced or acquired by the
People’s Republic of China, Iran and North Korea.”
SURTASS LFA is designed to help detect, locate or avoid such submarines before
they close within range of U.S. forces, Fallon explained.
To meet the legal requirements before deploying the sonar, “the Navy
undertook the most comprehensive and exhaustive environmental planning and associated
research effort ever conducted to support a major seagoing combat system.”
The scientific research alone cost $10 million over two years, he said.
“Despite this extraordinary effort in terms of time, money and resources
to comply with existing environmental laws,” Fallon said, “the Navy
now finds itself with a federal court order defining the limits of operation
of a key system needed to address a clear, present and growing national security
“There is no evidence of any negative impact on marine mammals in the
one area in which we are currently operating.”
To gain relief from such restrictions, the Pentagon last year proposed a package
of legislation entitled the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative. Congress
enacted three of the proposals as part of the 2003 defense authorization bill.
Two of these provisions made it easier for the services to work with local
and state governments, as well as private environmental organizations, to plan
developments around training ranges. A third permitted the “incidental
taking” of endangered birds during bombing and other training on military
This year, the Pentagon asked Congress to clarify the following environmental
Endangered Species Act. The department wants to allow the services to continue
cooperating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in drawing up Integrated
Natural Resource Management Plans, making it unnecessary to designate critical
habitat on military lands. This policy is under court challenge.
Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon would like to define the “harassment”
of marine mammals, including whales and porpoises, as interfering with biologically
significant issues, such as survival and breeding. Under this proposal, current,
more ambiguous definitions, such as “annoyance” and “potential
to disturb,” would be dropped.
Clean Air Act. The department seeks more flexibility for military and testing
facilities to meet state emissions implementation plans. The Pentagon wants
up to three years to reach agreement with states on emissions from military
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Comprehensive Environmental Res-ponse,
Compensation and Liability Act. The Pentagon is seeking more leeway regarding
the firing of munitions on operational ranges, including such issues as when
the range closes or what happens when munitions migrate off range.
Congress seems willing to give the Pentagon at least some of what it wants.
By a vote of 361 to 68, the House in May passed a $400.5 billion 2004 defense
authorization bill. It included two of the provisions sought by the Pentagon—the
changes in the endangered species and the marine mammal protection laws. The
Senate, by a 98 to 1 vote, approved similar language for endangered species.
“The changes are very narrow,” Harald Stavenas, spokesman for the
House Armed Services Committee, told National Defense. “They apply only
to matters affecting military readiness.”
At press time, the two houses had yet to meet in conference to agree on a single
bill to send to the president for signature into law. Whatever changes are made
this year, military leaders are considered likely to come back next year, requesting
the additional modifications on their list.
Environmental organizations, meanwhile, oppose any relaxation of the rules.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, senior vice president for conservation programs at the
National Wildlife Federation told the Senate that the Pentagon’s proposal
“is both unjustified and dangerous.”
It is unjustified, she said, “because the Defense Department’s
longstanding approach of working through compliance issues on an installation-by-installation
basis works.” U.S. armed services are “as prepared today as they
ever have been in their history, and this has been achieved without broad exemptions
from environmental laws.”
The department’s initiative is dangerous, she said, because, “if
Congress were to broadly exempt [the department] from its environmental protection
responsibilities, both people and wildlife would be threatened with serious,
irreversible and unnecessary harm.” Also, she said, if the Pentagon got
a break, other federal agencies and industry sectors would line up for their
Pentagon officials, for their part, deny that they are acting irresponsibly.
“Some of our critics have said that we are pursuing these measures as
a means to back away from environmental responsibility and that we are doing
this now to leverage off the war on terrorism and Operation Iraqi Freedom,”
said Dubois. “That is just flat out not true.”
Keane agreed, pointing out that the services have spent $74 million for compliance
with the Endangered Species Act in the past five years alone.
What the administration is trying to do, Dubois said, “is to adjust these
laws to prevent them from being applied in ways in which the Congress ... never
intended them to be applied, and which—overtime—have been used by
third parties to enjoin the military from using training lands as designated