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Northern Edge 2015 Underway

Environmental Group: "Eco-Effects of Sonar Arrays and Gunnery Unclear"


June 19, 2015
Friday PM

(SitNews) - Approximately 200 military aircraft filled the skies above Alaska this week, signifying the start of the joint training exercise, Northern Edge 2015. The joint training exercise is hosted by Alaskan Command and will take place above central Alaska ranges and the Gulf of Alaska from June 15-26, 2015.

"Northern Edge is the premier combat exercise for joint forces ... anywhere in the world," said Air Force Col. Charles Corcoran, 3rd Wing commander and Air Expeditionary Wing commander for NE15. "The objective is to make sure our air combat forces are ready as a joint team and to be able to execute real world operations anywhere in the Pacific."

jpg Northern Edge 2015 Underway

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle from the 67th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base takes off during Exercise Northern Edge from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, June 16, 2015.
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. William Banton

Northern Edge 2015 is just one in a series of U.S. Pacific Command exercises in 2015 to prepare joint forces to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The exercise is designed to sharpen tactical combat skills, improve command, control and communication relationships, and to develop interoperable plans and programs across the joint force.

Approximately 6,000 U.S. military personnel from units stationed in the continental United States and from U.S. installations in the Pacific will participate along with approximately 200 aircraft from all services, as well as three U.S. Navy destroyers and one U.S. Navy submarine operating in the Gulf of Alaska. Most personnel and units are deployed to and operate from Anchorage-based Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fairbanks-based Eielson Air Force Base. Participants will serve as part of a joint task force practicing tasks associated with joint operations.

"It's really important to train like we are going to fight," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Bobinski, Northern Edge control group lead. "As most people know, anytime we go to war it's not going to be just the Air Force, Navy, Army or Marines, we are going to need to work together as a team."

Exercises like NE15 provide opportunities for the U.S. military to take advantage of a unique joint training environment so the military is prepared to respond to real world situations, Bobinski said.

"If we go into combat we are going to go as a joint team, so we need to be able to practice and exercise as a joint team." Corcoran said. "There are nuances that you just don't get to see when you are doing standalone service training. It really prepares us for anything that could happen."

Major participating units this year include 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 Materiel Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and U.S. Naval Reserve.

Planning an exercise with such a broad joint interoperability has its challenges, Bobinski said.

"Each service has their own way of doing business and they do it very well when they're in their own service channels," he said. "Once they start trying to work together there is sometimes different [terms] being spoken that has to be overcome and different processes that are being used, which we have to come together and determine how we are going to execute them. "

Major participating units include 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 Materiel Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and U.S. Naval Reserve.

Another reason this exercise is special is because of the location, Corcoran said.

"Alaska has some unique capabilities that you just can't find anywhere else," he said. "Because we value this place so much we are going to leave it better than we found it. Everyone who deploys here understands what a unique and rare opportunity this is and wants to be able to come back and continue to practice these skills."

Overall NE15 aims to prepare the nations joint-forces in training environment.

"We need to be able to go at a moment's notice anywhere in the world," Corcoran said. "You aren't ready if you don't practice so we have to do these types of exercises for any contingences so we can protect America's interests around the world."

NE15 is the largest military training exercise scheduled in Alaska this year with virtual and constructive participants from all over the U.S. exercising alongside live players.

According to an Alaskan Command news release, environmental protection is an integral part of the exercise. The military in Alaska has conducted thorough environmental analysis of the activities being conducted as part of NE15. Alaskan Command wrote they are proud of their environmental stewardship and goes to great lengths to minimize harm to the environment.

According to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), “Northern Edge” involves live shelling, numerous surface explosions, aerial drops and intensive deployment of active mid-frequency sonar systems linked to acoustic damage and stranding events in marine mammals.

Covering some 40,000 square miles of the northern Gulf of Alaska, just south of Prince William Sound and east of the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, these exercises are considerably less extensive than what was outlined in earlier plans write PEER. "They will, however, entail sizable marine disruptions, including wide use of mid-frequency Navy sonar known to adversely affect marine mammals. The Navy’s latest briefing also states that the exercise will involve discharge of 1,600 high-impact 5-inch shells, with 45 sea surface high-explosive detonations, as well as sinking floating targets and discharge of inert but often hazardous materials."

“The Navy should confine its live-fire and active sonar exercises far offshore and to the winter months, in order to minimize risks to marine mammals and the coastal ecosystem,” contended Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. “The Navy should also dial-down its plans for five years of expanded Gulf of Alaska war games starting next year.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is concerned that despite the Navy’s mitigation plan, including marine mammal lookouts and clearance zones, the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement concedes the exercises could result in 182,000 impacts (“takes”) to marine mammals, causing behavioral effects and some permanent injuries . While the Navy accepted two recommendations from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to minimize these adverse impacts, it rejected NOAA recommendations to --

  • Monitor the effects of expended materials;
  • Catalog the underwater noise levels created by the exercise; and
  • Assess and report on the amount of fish mortality caused.

In addition, the Navy rejected Steiner’s suggestion that it accommodate independent scientific observers during the exercises to confirm effectiveness of its mitigation measures. The Navy objects to independent observers, asserting they are not necessary, and would present unspecified “security” concerns.

“The Navy believes that protecting the marine environment is an inconvenience external to its mission,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that these events reinforce the argument for creating marine sanctuaries or monuments in the most sensitive Alaskan waters. “The Navy’s unwillingness to either directly monitor, or let others monitor, the amount of marine carnage it will create indicates a problematic ‘shoot-first-but ask-no-questions-later’ attitude.”

According to Alaska Central Command, aerial and land-based military training activities in or near Alaska, including Northern Edge exercises, are analyzed in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex Environmental Impact Statement, which was completed by the Air Force and Army in 2013.

For Naval activities, Northern Edge exercises are analyzed in the Navy's 2011 Gulf of Alaska Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The at-sea portions of Northern Edge occur within the Temporary Maritime Activities Area. The Temporary Maritime Activities Area's (TMAA) northern boundary is located approximately 24 nautical miles south of the shoreline of the Kenai Peninsula, which is the largest proximate landmass. The only other shoreline close to the TMAA is Montague Island, which is located 12 nm north of the Temporary Maritime Activities Area. The approximate middle of the TMAA is located 140 nm offshore. The closest point of the TMAA to Cordova is approximately 80 nm southwest of the town. The Temporary Maritime Activities Area (TMAA) was designed to avoid critical habitats and although it does not avoid all fish and marine mammal habitats, the activities are infrequent and widely dispersed throughout the Temporary Maritime Activities Area according to the news release.

The Alaska Command stated in a news release, the Navy's training activities are conducted with an extensive set of range clearance and mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life. U.S. Navy vessels also conduct range clearance and mitigation measures designed to avoid damage to participating and non-participating vessels and aircraft. The Navy has conducted Northern Edge and other training and testing activities in the Gulf of Alaska for many decades without major harm to the environment. For future exercises beyond 2016 the Navy is currently in the process of preparing a Supplement to the original 2011 EIS and is seeking renewal of permit authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Navy is a major supporter of research that includes developing methods to detect and monitor marine species before and during training and understanding the effects of sound on marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and birds. When the Navy uses active sonar it operates the sonar at the lowest practicable level except as required to meet tactical training objectives, stated an Alaskan Command news release.




Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


Sources of News:

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)



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