Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 3, 2001

U.S. military losing land wars

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer

The "rock," as the Navy likes to call it, is an uninhabited tabletop of coral and savanna 45 miles north of Saipan that regularly gets blasted to bits.

Brig. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, former assistant division commander for support for the 25th Infantry Division (Light) at Schofield Barracks, says training at Makua is vital to the combat readiness of Hawai'i's soldiers.

Advertiser library photo

Since 1971 the Navy's Pacific Fleet and other branches of the U.S. military have bombed, strafed and otherwise targeted the "rock" — also known as Farallon de Medinilla — using air-to-surface missiles, 500-, 750-, and 2,000-pound bombs, precision-guided munitions, mines, deck-mounted guns, grenades and shoulder-fired missiles in live-fire training to ensure military readiness.

With the filing of a lawsuit this year by the Center for Biological Diversity, however, the Western Pacific island became one of the latest training ranges to be fixed in the crosshairs of environmentalists.

For the military, Farallon de Medinilla is emblematic of a widespread dilemma it faces in a much more publicized way in Makua Valley, on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, and at many of its other live-fire ranges around the world.

The opposition has become so far-reaching, top brass within the military complained on May 9 to the House Government Reform Committee that environmental and other constraints to training have imperiled the readiness of U.S. fighting forces.

Environmental groups such as the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund see the legal fight at locations like Farallon as emblematic of military arrogance and disregard for environmental law.

"This 'rock' — and that (term) maybe reflects the need for some sensitivity training — is an extremely important seabird nesting colony," Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said. "The bottom line with respect to that land and Makua is the Army is not above the law; the military is not above the law."

While the legal and public maneuvering continues over the use of live-fire ranges, military analysts say the trend does not bode well for the Army's return to the 4,190-acre Makua Military Reservation on O'ahu's Leeward Coast, where a lawsuit and community opposition stand in the way of those plans.

"The forces affecting this debate (nationally) are going to become more restrictive, not less so," said Chris Hellman, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Activists may be in minority

University of Hawai'i political science professor Ira Rohter believes that if the Army returns to live-fire training in Makua, sit-ins and other forms of protest are sure to follow.

There is "a real momentum" behind community opposition to training similar to that demonstrated in the 1970s over the Navy's use of Kaho'olawe as a target range, Rohter said.

"It's not just heavy-duty activists — there are younger people getting involved, older people getting involved. You are seeing a much larger cross-section," Rohter said. "This is not going to go away. I think ultimately, they (the Army) are going to have to give the valley back. I don't see any out on that."

The Army believes otherwise, noting good-neighbor efforts like soldiers' providing mentoring in Leeward Coast schools, and $1 million spent annually in Makua alone for environmental and cultural stewardship.

"Our feeling is there is a lot of support for the Army throughout the island of O'ahu and throughout the state, and certainly the community of Wai'anae has always been a great supporter," said Maj. Nancy Makowski, an Army spokeswoman.

The opposition, the Army believes, does not represent the majority of the community.

Early results from a survey conducted by Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Kalaeloa, Makaha), along the Leeward Coast may support the Army's contention.

In late February, Hanabusa asked residents in her district their opinions about issues including schools, crime, roads and Makua.

Although mail-in responses are still trickling in, Hanabusa said more than 500 responses were obtained by neighborhood canvass, and about 60 percent of those respondents favor the Army's return to training in Makua.

The surveys also showed a majority of Hawaiian homestead residents support the Army's presence in Makua, the legislator said.

"The folks that have been in opposition to our return to Makua, I think, are the same folks that have been active on this issue since the beginning," Makowski said. "I don't see it expanding."

Soldiers being 'hemmed in'

The Army repeatedly has argued that troop readiness is eroding because of its inability to conduct live-fire training in Makua, incorporating the thump of howitzer and mortar fire and whir of helicopters to simulate the smoke, smell and sound of battle.

It's the same argument the military has been making elsewhere — with less and less success.

A high-profile case in point: On Vieques, despite a government agreement providing $40 million in aid and the promise of $50 million more if residents agree to let the Navy stay, more than 5,000 people opposed to training there rallied outside a federal prison last week where 38 people were being held for trespassing during recent exercises.

At the May 9 House Government Reform Committee hearing over training constraints faced by the military, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who heads the committee, said combat training is being "hemmed in" from Vieques to San Clemente Island, and from Norfolk, Va., to Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Development has bumped up against once-remote installations, resulting in public scrutiny and citizens' calls for less noise, greater safety, and more environmental protection. At both Makua and in Vieques, there have been cultural claims to the land.

One of the greatest concerns for the military has been the Endangered Species Act, which has provided ammunition for environmentalists seeking to protect rare species found on the vast tracts of land laid claim to by the military for live-fire training.

Meanwhile, the number of species counted as endangered continues to rise: More than 1,200 species are now recognized as endangered or threatened under the act established in 1973, and an additional 250 species are candidates for possible inclusion.

One congressman argued at the recent hearing that as a result of "federal regulations and rules and red tape" the military is increasingly faced with "defending more lawsuits than they are defending our nation."

At his Senate confirmation hearing in January, meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the challenges to military training "is a problem that is real."

"The United States needs bases," he said. "It needs ranges. It needs test ranges. And it cannot provide the training and the testing that people need before they go into battle unless those kinds of facilities are available. And each year that goes by, there are greater and greater pressures on them."

Navy Capt. Phil Lenfant, director of training for the Pacific Fleet, calls it "death by a thousand cuts." The loss of an individual live-fire training site is manageable, he said, but the cumulative loss impacts readiness.

Lenfant points to San Clemente Island, south of Long Beach, Calif., as another example of a training range whose use is being challenged.

Farallon and San Clemente are the Navy's only U.S.-owned practice ranges in the Pacific since a 1990 halt to bombing on Kaho'olawe, he said.

"We're under constant attack," Lenfant said. "If we lose (Farallon), we expect, without being able to depend on other non-U.S.-owned ranges, it would bring forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific down to the lowest level of readiness that we use on our scale."

The caveat for that, he said, would be the loss of training ranges in Okinawa and also in South Korea — where greater curbs were recently put in place.

"What's causing this is just an exponential increase in laws — federal and state — that we just can't manage," Lenfant said. "All I argue for is sort of a leveling of the playing field on this."

Military surrender urged

Earthjustice's Henkin, whose organization represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its lawsuit against the Navy, says legal action was necessary to protect breeding colonies of migratory seabirds on Farallon Island.

"When the Navy, in the interest of pursuing their agenda, violates federal laws, they are undermining the very system they are theoretically there to defend," Henkin sad. "What we're doing at Farallon de Medinilla and Makua is making sure the will of the people is enforced."

The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits harming migratory birds absent a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency refused to issue such a permit in 1996, the Center for Biological Diversity said.

According to the center, Farallon has breeding colonies of great frigate birds; masked, red-footed and brown boobies; red- and white-tailed tropicbirds; white and sooty terns; and brown and black noddies.

In continuing to use Farallon for training, the Navy responds that the act does not apply to federal agencies, a position backed by federal appeals court rulings.

Earthjustice also represents community group Malama Makua in a lawsuit seeking a comprehensive environmental assessment of the effects of training in Makua Valley.

The Army has resisted such a move, saying environmental and cultural safeguards will protect 34 endangered species and 54 archaeological sites. And with the recent release of a finding of "no significant impact," the Army said it plans on resuming live-fire training in the valley as early as July, following a more than two-year hiatus.

The Center for Defense Information's Hellman suggests that in the face of growing opposition worldwide, the military cut its losses and close some firing ranges, while making the argument for keeping others that are essential.

Meanwhile, UH's Rohter believes that the die is cast with regard to Makua, which he sees as having become a focal point for cultural ties to the land.

"If one looks at Kaho'olawe as a parallel example, I think the Hawaiian resistance (to the Army in Makua) is not going to go away," he said. "Makua has been bubbling for years."