July 13, 2008

Navy Plan Would Curtail Bombing, Search for Mines, Assist Whales

By Kate Wiltrout, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jul. 13--NORFOLK -- Helicopter crews would search the Chesapeake Bay for simulated mines and fighter jet squadrons would reduce the number of explosives they drop off the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina under a revised training plan the Navy is considering.

Both changes are part of the Navy's comprehensive review of its training tactics in the Virginia Capes area, which covers a swath of the Atlantic Ocean between Delaware and North Carolina. It would establish training patterns for the next decade over an area that extends about 200 miles offshore and includes about 532 square miles of the Bay.

Since 2004, the Navy has been doing what it calls "tactical training theater assessment planning" to determine whether exercises can be made more effective and reduce the impact on the environment. In a 733-page draft environmental impact statement now available for public comment, the Navy proposes expanding training for Norfolk-based mine-hunting helicopters.

Currently, local Navy and Marine helicopters fly about 1,400 sorties each year in the ocean and Bay in which they "tow" a mine warfare sled in the water, simulating the search for mines.

With the recent relocation of an MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopter squadron from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Norfolk, those sorties would increase at least 50 percent, to about 2,100 training flights annually, according to the document.

Another change would involve the placement of training devices known as "mine shapes" in the Bay, explained David Noble, Fleet Forces Command's at-sea natural resources program manager.

Currently, mine-hunting helicopters practice dragging the sleds, but crews don't search for specific targets.

The training mines, which would not contain explosives, would be held in place by a concrete anchor, and would rest on the Bay floor or be moored at various depths. They would record data during exercises and could be in place for up to six months.

Noble said researchers are examining three training mine scenarios: not using the training mines at all in the Bay, using 20, and using 270.

Some bombing exercises involving F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet jets would be greatly reduced or eliminated under the proposal.

Virginia Beach-based fighter squadrons now drop about 450 high-explosive bombs at sea each year during exercises in two spots, off Cape Charles and Cape Hatteras. The Navy is proposing to eliminate use of the main practice bomb, the 500-pound MK-82, as well as a 2,000-pound version. Instead of dropping a 1,000-pound version more than 132 times a year, pilots would use it just 20 times, and only off Cape Charles.

"We were able to drastically reduce the number of live bombs in the ocean and completely eliminated one of our live bombing areas near Cape Hatteras," Noble said. He noted that it's a popular fishing area.

The changes in training requirements reflect evolving technology and better science, Noble said. Taking a closer look at marine research, for instance, allowed the Navy to determine areas with high densities of sea turtles, whales and dolphins.

The proposed scenarios also reduce training activities in the migration corridor of the endangered right whale, and modify activity in important fishing areas, Noble noted.

The Navy has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years for the environmental effects of its sonar exercises, which have been limited by federal judges in California and Hawaii. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering one sonar case.

Closer to home, the service is in the midst of completing a separate study on sonar training activities along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Plans for a shallow-water sonar training range off North Carolina have riled environmentalists and the fishing industry, which claims the Navy is discounting the possible effects of sonar on fish as well as whales and dolphins.

Noble said he expects the Navy to finalize its decision on training in the Capes area by next spring. It is accepting written comments on the plan until Aug. 11.

Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, [email protected]


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