Time for Public Comment On Navy War Training Running Out

Nov 25, 2014

The public has until the end of the week to weigh in on the Navy’s plan to create an electromagnetic warfare range.

The Pacific Northwest Electronic Warfare Range requires permits from the National Forest Service and the State Department of Natural Resources.

The Navy conducts more than 1,200 training flights a year over the Olympic Peninsula. The warfare range would increase flights by radar jamming EA-18 Growlers by as much as 10 percent.

Under the plan, camper-sized vehicles would roam 15 sites on logging roads on the Peninsula and nine in the Okanagan and Colville National forests sending out signals. 

The Navy would also build a stationary emitter at Pacific Beach in Grays Harbor County.

Deputy Commander Captain Scott Farr says the military crews would train on the range to detect and destroy enemy radar.  

“Instead of finding a needle in a haystack, these aircrew are out there trying to find the correct needle in a pile of needles,” he said. “So this is a very dynamic and very technical complex mission.”

Farr says the Pacific Northwest’s topography, low population density and low air traffic make it an ideal place to do that type of enhanced training.

If permitted, the Electronic Warfare Range would allow the Navy to train with ships and submarines as well.

Residents on the Peninsula are concerned about increased jet noise, and the effects of electromagnetic radiation on people, wildlife and migrating birds.

The Navy’s John Mosher says the emitters are safe, but the message didn’t resonate during recent public meetings on the proposal like this one in Port Angeles. The crowed grew cranky as Mosher explained.  

“The transmissions that we’re proposing follow the occupational safety administration, federal communications commission and the institute of electrical and electronic engineer’s standards,” Mosher said.

Pilots currently must fly 400 miles to Mountain Home Air Force Base Idaho to do this kind of training.

The Navy says the $11.5 million dollar project will save money. 

That’s not good enough for Charles Nelson who spoke at the meeting in Port Angeles.

“Other than saving pennies on the dollar, why does this training have to occur here? Why can’t you use established military installations? Mountain Home Base Idaho, JBLM, Yakima Firing Center, Fort Irwin California. Why does it have to be right here?” Nelson said.

John Sahr, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, says the signals from the emitter use frequencies similar to weather radar systems. 

They also emit about the same amount of radiation, between 100 and 300 watts of average power, with higher peak power.

“I’m completely convinced that there are in fact health effects, deleterious health effects associated with low level electromagnetic fields,” Sahr said. “But what I’m not convinced of yet is that they’re important in the sense that they have large impact on our society,”

Some of Sahr’s colleagues have found that low level electromagnetic fields can impact cell membranes and DNA. But Sahr says ultimately the risk is pretty small.

“If you look at the nations around the planet that have healthy populations with long lives those tend to be the same nations that have had electric infrastructure and radio wave infrastructure really approaching a century, really exceeding a century,” he said. “It’s not that the radio waves are causing us to live longer. But they’re at least not necessarily causing us to live less long.”

The Navy says the operators would shut down an emitter if anything enters a 100-foot buffer zone.

The Forest Service has received more than 2,000 public comments. Many chide the Forest Service for accepting the Navy's Environmental Impact Statement which was prepared in 2010.

Local government leaders have expressed skepticism about the proposal, although most have stopped short of publicly opposing the Navy's plans. 

Defense expert Ciro Lopez from CNA Corporation, a research group based in Arlington Virginia, says dominating the electromagnetic spectrum on the battle field is increasingly important for all of the Armed Services.

"Because of this proliferation of devices that uses spectrum to convey information, threats could really come from anywhere," Lopez said. "So what this calls for is a greater awareness and expertise of the role of the electromagnetic spectrum in all facets of military operations."

A decision on the permits probably won't happen until the middle of next year.

The U.S. Forest Service is taking public comment until November 28.

Todd Ortloff contributed reporting.