Makua Valley eyed for counterinsurgency, road bomb training
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
The Army wants to spend about $3.7 million to transform Mäkua Valley into a "world-class" roadside bomb and counterinsurgency training center with convoy live fire along hillside roads, simulated explosions and multiple "villages" to replicate the roadside bomb threat in Iraq and Afghanistan — the No. 1 killer of Americans.
As that occurs, the Army said it also wants to eventually transition some of its storm-the-hill traditional live-fire training from Mäkua to Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.
The counter-improvised explosive device, or IED, focus at Mäkua is a new proposal by the Army as it also seeks the more immediate return to the traditional infantry live-fire exercises in the 4,190-acre Wai'anae Coast valley — something it hadn't been able to do since 2004 due to environmental lawsuits.
Schofield Barracks may seek to conduct traditional live-fire drills in Mäkua involving companies of 150 soldiers with artillery, mortars and helicopter fire as early as March, officials said.
"What this (longer-term) plan enables us to do is to modernize Mäkua Valley (to meet) what we think is the long and enduring threat," said Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon, referring to counterinsurgency and roadside bombs.
Mixon is head of the U.S. Army in the Pacific.
He said the plan also would reduce the cultural and environmental impact in Mäkua — the source of ongoing lawsuits — "because we would shift over time, and I'm talking five to 10 years from now, the heavy ordnance training, artillery training and things of that nature over to Pohakuloa."
Changes already in the works for Hawai'i's Stryker Brigade at the Big Island training area, along with possible new training ran-ges to replace Mäkua and other improvements, conceivably could total $300 million over the next 15 years, Mixon said.
RESTARTING LIVE FIRE
The counter-roadside bomb plan represents a fundamental change in what to date had been the Army's dogged pursuit of traditional infantry live-fire training in Mäkua Valley, a quest that has cost it millions in court fees.
A lawsuit over training was settled with community group Malama Mäkua in 2001. However, the Army's failure to complete an agreed-upon environmental impact statement analysis of decades of military training prevented a return to live fire since 2004 and spawned a series of sub-lawsuits.
The Army last July completed the environmental examination by saying it wanted to conduct up to 32 combined-arms live-fire exercises or 150 convoy live-fire exercises annually in the valley.
"The EIS we consider to be legally sufficient (and) we intend to return to live fire in Mäkua Valley," Mixon said last week from his headquarters at Fort Shafter.
David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney who represents Malama Mäkua, said he doesn't know the details of the shift in focus being proposed by Mixon for Mäkua Valley.
"I guess all I can say is this proposal has never been subjected to any form of environmental review — including public review — so it's impossible to make any informed statement about it without actually seeing what's being proposed," Henkin said.
New construction "raises a lot of concerns about potential damage to subsurface archaeological resources," Henkin said.
More than 50 endangered plant and animal species, and more than 100 archaeological features, are found in the valley area.
GLOBAL TRAINING SITE
Mixon said he intends to take the Mäkua and Pohakuloa plan before the Army chief of staff and other Army officials probably in the next 60 days.
"If I get their support, which I'm sure I will, we will start as soon as we possibly can," he said. That could mean construction activity at Mäkua within a year, he added.
Henkin maintains that such a change would require a supplemental environmental impact review.
Mixon said part of his plan includes the development of an IED "fusion center" in Hawai'i that would bring together intelligence gathering, a knowledge base and training to defeat roadside bombs not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Asia-Pacific countries such as Thailand, India and the Philippines, where the bombs also are a growing threat.
He said he's already obtained "a couple million dollars" in start-up funding from the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.
U.S. soldiers could travel to Pacific partner nations to train their soldiers on roadside bomb techniques, and foreign soldiers might be able to travel to Hawai'i to receive training at Mäkua, Mixon said.
The three-star general said he envisions Mäkua as a "world-class IED and counterinsurgency" training center.
Mäkua's austere hillside road network is a close approximation of Afghanistan roads. Mixon's plan includes the installation of a couple dozen mobile structures that would be congregated in two spots and spread out elsewhere to represent villages.
The training would include convoy live fire in response to an attack, and a "shoot house" with about 10 rooms in which soldiers could practice live-fire room clearing, officials said.
Helicopters would be brought in for support and a key component of the plan is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to look for roadside bomb planters.
Mixon said the fleet of UAVs will be increasing in Hawai'i, and Mäkua is one of the few allowable places to fly.
Training requirements were examined for Hawai'i with an eye to an integrated approach and "how can we make the best possible use, given the training requirements and the anticipated threat, of Schofield, Mäkua and Pohakuloa Training Area," Mixon said.
Schofield units have been able to rotate annually to the National Training Center in California for large-scale training exercises during a time of war, but those availabilities, at a cost of between $18 million to $22 million, are expected to dwindle if and when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, he said.
As a result, more Hawai'i-based service members, including Marines and National Guard soldiers, will be at home station longer and need to get their training in the Isles, Mixon said.
Mixon said he envisions expanding the live-fire capability at Pohakuloa, and if that's possible, "we would see a gradual shift to a different type of live-fire training (at Mäkua) which is focused on counter-IED operations in cities and close-quarters combat."
But he also said the Army would have to retain the ability to use Mäkua for IED training and — if needed — the traditional company-size combined arms exercises involving mortars, artillery and helicopters firing overhead.
Mixon said he's been out to the Wai'anae Coast to talk with community representatives in "general terms" about the new Mäkua plan.
"It's our desire to continue to train in Mäkua Valley but look at ways to limit the cultural and environmental impact," he said.