CNMI: US Military Finalizes Training Site

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Pacific Chief criticizes China for South China Sea tension

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, August 1, 2015) – The military has finalized its option for future training and weapons testing needs in the Marianas, including a large swath of the Philippine Sea and the airspace above it, a document released Friday states.

Expanded environmental analyses, including the impact of sonar pings and use of explosives and future weapons systems, were taken into account before the decision was reached, according to the document. The document is called the Record of Decision for the Mariana Islands Training and Testing study area.

Tourism and safety of the public are unlikely to experience adverse impact because most of the training and testing will be conducted far into the open sea, according to an earlier environmental impact statement related to the plan.

The training and study area covers 984,601 square nautical miles and includes the existing Mariana Islands Range Complex, which covers 497,469 square nautical miles, additional areas on the high seas and a transit corridor between the Marianas training range and the Hawaii sea training range complex.

The selected option, "Alternative 1," does not expand the area where the military already trains and tests, but simply expands the area analyzed for environmental and other impacts, according to environmental impact study documents leading up to the decision. The existing training area includes Farallon de Medinilla, an island in the Mariana islands that the military has used for decades as a bombing practice range for planes and ships.

Due to the strategic location of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Pentagon’s realignment plans in the Western Pacific, there has been an increase in the importance of the Mariana Islands Range Complex as a training and testing venue, military plans state.

Rising tension

The U.S. military’s training and testing area within Marianas waters of the Philippine Sea is next door to the tension in the South China Sea.

The new commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said at a July 24 security forum that China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is an issue the American public must know about and the United States must address, the Defense Media Activity reported.

"While Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also conducted land reclamation in the South China Sea, their total -- approximately 100 acres over 45 years — is dwarfed by the size, scope and scale of China’s massive buildup," Harris said at the recent security forum in Aspen, Colorado. "In only 18 months, China has reclaimed almost 3,000 acres."

While the Record of Decision for the Marianas Training and Testing area doesn’t specifically mention a specific threat to the United States, the document states the type of training, testing and locations have evolved over the years to meet changing threats and to incorporate improved technology.

The military’s evolving training and testing needs in the Marianas are part of the United States’ "rebalance" of military resources by shifting more resources in the Asia Pacific, said John Brown, a Guam attorney and president of the pro-military buildup lobby group GUASA.

At a recent forum GUASA hosted in Washington, D.C., Brown said a security expert highlighted the need for extensive training and readiness in the Marianas in light of China’s plan to claim a chain of islands — extending from Palau, Guam, the Northern Marianas and some of Japan’s outer islands — as part of China’s maritime perimeter.

The Pentagon, in a 2012 report to Congress on military developments involving China, also mentions "China military theorists" who refer to the chain of islands that "extends from Japan to Guam" as China’s "second island chain" maritime perimeter. The first island chain China theorists have mentioned involves territories of Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to the Pentagon report.

Brown said China’s territorial expansions can’t be ignored, and its "second island chain" claim isn’t just a theory.

"If you want to just ignore that, you do that at your own peril," Brown said.

Environmental concerns

Military training and testing plans in Marianas waters called for an extensive environmental impact study, according to the document.

Brown said he trusts that the federal process gives the military and environmental agencies the tools to weigh the environmental impacts and security needs and find a balance to address both.

The greatest potential impact on marine habitats would be from underwater explosives near shallow coral reefs, according to the environmental impact study, but most detonations will occur at, or near, the sea surface.

Underwater explosive activities that do occur on the seafloor would be located primarily in the previously disturbed areas, according to the document.

The use of sonar and other active acoustic sources and underwater explosives "may result in harassment" of certain marine mammal species, environmental studies state.

The military plans to post surface and underwater lookouts to spot for whales, sharks, sea turtles and other marine creatures that might be in harm’s way before training or testing occurs, the document shows.

The document also included:

An expanded at-sea environmental impact analyses to account for new ships and aircraft.

Establishment of a safety zone for existing land-based small arms and explosive ordnance disposal ranges and a near-shore small arms training area.

An increase in the net weight of underwater detonations from 10 to 20 pounds at the Agat Bay mine neutralization site.

Deferment of use of motorized amphibious landing craft on Unai Chulu, Unai Babui and Unai Dankulo shores on Tinian to minimize the adverse effect on sea turtles.

One of the options reviewed before the decision was reached included exclusively using simulators and "synthetic training," but that was rejected.

The document states "there is no substitute for live training in a realistic environment."

"Naval forces must be prepared for a broad range of capabilities — from full-scale armed conflict in a variety of different geographic areas to disaster relief efforts — prior to deployment on the world’s oceans," according to the military plan. "To learn these capabilities, personnel must train with the equipment and systems that will achieve military objectives."

Though the Navy issued the document, multi-branch exercises involving submarines, planes, surface ships and weapons such as missiles and rockets may be used during certain training.

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