The military is winding down Northern Edge, the largest training exercise held in Alaska. Assets from across all branches of the military were brought in for war games in Anchorage and the Gulf of Alaska since June 15th. Normally, the exercise happens every two years, but in 2013 budget sequestration led to its cancellation. That irregular time gap contributed substantially to feelings among environmentalists and coastal communities that communication from the military has been inadequate.
The roof over the fire station on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson provided a perfect vantage point for watching fighter jets take off one after another, arcing widely before disappearing in the distance. However, it was too loud to hear much, so Lieutenant Colonel Tim Bobinski ducked inside to explain all the planning that has gone into Northern Edge over the course of the last year, gathering roughly 6,000 troops, 200 aircraft, three Navy Destroyers, and one submarine.
“It sounds like a lot of people and a lot of assets,” Bobinski concedes, “but it’s truly worthwhile.”
The last Northern Edge, in 2011, cost $11 million, and though figures for this year won’t be tallied until after exercises conclude, the price tag will likely be in the same range. That expense, Bobinski said, goes towards ensuring military preparedness for a wide array of missions.”In a lot of ways it’s a bargain,” Bobinski said.
A main focus of the exercise is getting soldiers from all four branches of the military experience in unfamiliar terrain, logging hour after hour of hands-on practice with some of the most sophisticated machinery in the nation’s arsenal.
“I was here in 2008 and 2009 as a pilot, and it’s really like nothing you can replicate anywhere else,” Bobinski said of Alaska’s uniquely large training ranges. “It was mind-boggling.”
As for what the training actually entails–like what all those F-22s and F-16s were swooping off to go do: it was a little vague.
“I can’t get too much into specific scenarios,” Bobinski said, “due to the nature of the exercise.”
That has been one of the big frustrations with Northern Edge for the residents of coastal communities that saw protests leading up to the event. Many feel the military did not give the public information it’s entitled to.
“What we want to know is what they did this week and last week in the Gulf,” said conservation biologist Rick Steiner.
In April, Steiner started asking the Navy what was planned for Northern Edge, but couldn’t get answers.
“They all point the finger the other way and say go to this other agency for the information,” Steiner said. His concern was that organizers were not willing to disclose what kinds of activities were set to take place in an environmental area of critical importance to state residents. “This is the public’s Gulf of Alaska.”
Without clear information of what was in store, advocates and community members looked at a 2011 Environmental Impact Statement that detailed the maximum scope of allowable activities. And that document can appear alarming. For example, under the EIS the Navy is cleared to use over 26,376 gunshells during Northern Edge, along with plenty of other ordinance.
According to Steiner, people saw the figures and assumed the worst. By the time he got a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, he learned the actual numbers were far below the allowable threshold.
But there there are still some troubling unknowns, for Steiner, chiefly the duration of mid-range sonar used by naval ships during exercises. The location and time of year make sonar a threat to the health of some species of whale.
I raised those concerns with Commander Bryant Trost, head of the guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup, while the ship was docked at the Port of Anchorage.
“We were out there doing some anti-submarine warfare exercises, using our sonar to work with other ships,” Trost explained, standing on the ship’s deck near an extremely large cannon.
Trost was forthcoming where he could be about the Navy’s observers spotting marine mammals.
“We saw whales all the time,” Trost said. He estimated that over a hundred marine mammals were spotted, most of them at times when the sonar was inactive. “During the sonar operations there were a few that we stopped for, but generally we saw them and were not active, so we just observed them, recorded what we saw, then kept moving on.”
But there were limits to what Trost would disclose. “I don’t want to talk about how much time we had it on,” he said of the sonar, explaining it could reveal equipment limitations. “We did use it, but for fairly short…periods.”
Northern Edge has happened in Alaska since the mid-70s. But its cancellation in 2013 is part of why critics think wires got so severely crossed this iteration. That four year gap meant substantial staff turnover in the military.
“It wasn’t a breakdown in the system, it was just different than what we were anticipating based on previous years,” said Captain Anastasia Wasem, director of public affairs for the lead agency coordinating this year’s exercise, and managing communications between the public and branches of the military that can sometimes seem like they’re speaking different languages. “We’ve never seen this level of controversy before in previous Northern Edges–at least not from what I’ve been told.”
Once protests started this spring, military organizers responded by attending community meetings in Homer, Kodiak and Cordova. Wasem believes most people’s concerns were lessened upon hearing that the planned activities were significantly below what is allowable in the EIS document. “It definitely did help,” she added, “especially having someone there in person.”
Wasem’s plan for Northern Edge 17 is to begin communicating earlier with communities.
But for Rick Steiner, the fact that he had to file a Freedom of Information Request with the Navy is evidence that leaving public information up to the military simply is not sufficient.
“The miscommunication on Northern Edge has been extraordinary. It’s caused a lot of concerns–unnecessary and some necessary–in coastal communities,” Steiner said. “I think things just slip through the cracks.”
Northern Edge wraps up on Friday, June 26th.