Makua Valley 'essential' to Army
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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
A return to company-size live-fire training at Makua Valley — prohibited by court order for the past three years — is "absolutely critical" to the Army's training strategy and requirements in Hawai'i, the service said in a new report to Congress.
The only theoretically possible alternative would be to spend up to $600 million to build up similar training capabilities at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, an effort that would take seven to 12 years, the Army said.
The report, which was issued in response to a congressional mandate for the Army to study alternatives to using the Wai'anae Coast valley, drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, and is sure to ratchet up a decade's worth of tensions over Makua's use.
Abercrombie said the Army has spent millions to unsuccessfully defend in court the use of a training range that can be replaced and is ill-suited in particular to Stryker brigade training.
The military's attempts to hold on to Makua, a place of importance to Hawaiians, have become a "symbol of arrogance, a symbol of indifference to Hawaiians, indifference to the land," Abercrombie said.
He complains that the Army is spending time and money to defend its use of Makua at the same time Congress seeks ways to pay for armoring vehicles and the war in Iraq.
"Unless you have a mindset in which you have endless amounts of land, and endless amounts of ammunition and endless numbers of troops and absolutely nothing else to spend your money on and bottomless budgets, that kind of report is a little less than stupid," Abercrombie said.
Asked how soon he would like to see the Army get out of Makua, Abercrombie, a subcommittee chairman on the House Armed Services Committee, said, "How about yesterday — as soon as they stop fighting in court and recognize that this is a sucker's game."
The Army can conduct the training it needs at Schofield Barracks or at 133,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area, Abercrombie said, adding the Army's projected cost to alter Pohakuloa is ridiculously high.
But the Army, in its 118-page report, said that Makua is the only facility in the state that can accommodate combined arms maneuver exercises for a company of about 140 or more soldiers with accompanying artillery, mortar and helicopter fire.
The training area was also used by the Marines and reserve forces.
Makua's topography, with steep valley walls enclosing the range on three sides and relative isolation, provides a buffer from population centers.
Army commanders in recent years had broached the possibility of getting out of the 4,190-acre Makua Valley as additional training ranges and facilities were planned for the $1.5 billion Stryker brigade based in Hawai'i. But the report to Congress stakes a renewed claim on the range.
"(Makua) is an essential home-station facility necessary to maintain training readiness of O'ahu-based units," the report states.
Schofield Barracks is considered too small to construct a combined arms, company-size live-fire facility, the Army said, and the nearly 33,000-acre swath of land leased or owned by the Army at Kahuku and Kawailoa training areas extending to the North Shore is not used for live-fire.
Although the Army's eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles are now rotating through Pohakuloa Training Area in preparation for a deployment later this year to Iraq, the Army report said the facility can't meet near-term requirements for company-size exercises, and modifications would be time-consuming and unfeasible due to expense and environmental factors.
The Army agreed under a 2001 court settlement with Earthjustice and the community group Malama Makua to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement analysis of more than 75 years of military training in Makua Valley.
No live-fire training has been conducted in the valley for nearly three years because the Army hasn't completed the report.
Makua Valley's use as a training range by the military since the 1920s, when three tracts on the upper valley floor were purchased for howitzer emplacements, ironically has resulted in some degree of preservation of more than 100 archaeological features. The valley also is home to more than 40 endangered species.
The EIS was supposed to be completed by October 2004, but remains unfinished 2 1/2 years later, in part as a result of a fire that was intentionally set by the Army in 2003 to manage grasses but which got out of control and charred half the valley.
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin yesterday said he has yet to receive from the Army the new Makua report, but said the Army's views about how vital the range is to training have to be viewed in the context that since 1998, the military only has been allowed to do live-fire training in three years.
Over those three years, the Army by court agreement was given permission to conduct 37 company-sized exercises, but didn't even use the allotment it sought, Henkin said.
"They've deployed to war many times in that period of time," Henkin said, "and so the notion that somehow (Makua) is irreplaceable and vital to adequately training the troops for deployment simply doesn't measure up to the facts."
TRAINING ON MAINLAND
Col. Jeff Jarkowsky, operations officer for U.S. Army, Pacific, at Fort Shafter, said it's true that Schofield troops have conducted company-size live-fire training in the past at Mainland facilities, including the National Training Center in California.
Stryker brigade soldiers are scheduled to head to the training center in August ahead of their deployment to Iraq. The advantage of Makua is it's "close-to-home station. You don't have to go through a deployment to get your company live-fire," Jarkowsky said.
The training is intended to expose soldiers to the cacophony of battle on a large scale before they might have to experience it in actual war. The Mainland trips depend on a known rotational schedule.
"What if something goes down in Korea tonight?" asks Jarkowsky. "The units that did not have the opportunity to do these company (exercises) because we didn't have a range like Makua available, they are going to go with what (training) they got."
Abercrombie included a requirement for the Army to study and identify by March 1 alternative sites to Makua for live-fire training in the 2007 National Defense Authorization act, in part to break the stalemate over Makua.
The Army years ago made the argument that Makua was an obsolete facility and Congress allocated money to purchase training lands between Schofield and the North Shore "instead of it being out (at Makua) where you could get arguments about the environment and everything else," Abercrombie said.
"This facility is not only not adequate, it's not even available," he said. "Does anybody think for a moment that these court cases are going to end?"
Reach William Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.