Navy says order hinders training
A judge halted the use of active sonar during RIMPAC exercises
Not being allowed to use active sonar during the ongoing Rim of the Pacific naval war games is like "training with one arm tied behind your back," one of the Navy's top commanders said yesterday.
Vice Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Navy's 3rd Fleet and Rim of the Pacific naval war games, was responding to a decision by a U.S. district judge, who on Monday granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Navy from using active sonar. Environmentalists have argued that the sonar is harmful to marine mammals.
Costello said all of the seven countries involved in this year's exercise are "disappointed" by the order. Without active sonar, the exercises won't be as realistic as originally planned, he said.
The decision by Judge Florence Marie Cooper will have a major impact on the success of the biennial RIMPAC exercise -- the largest naval war games in the world, with 35 warships, six submarines, 160 aircraft and 19,000 personnel, Costello told the Star-Bulletin.
One of the major components of the naval exercise is anti-submarine warfare training, the top priority for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
"Being able to exercise and operate our active sonars is key to our proficiency in that critical warfare area," said Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Many of the exercises were to involve three diesel submarines that Japan, South Korea and Australia brought to Hawaiian waters to help coalition and U.S. sailors become proficient in tracking them. All of the subs in the U.S. fleet are nuclear-powered.
"Without the use of active sonar to locate these submarines," Costello said, there is "a significant degree of artificiality to it."
The court's action means the Navy is limited to using only passive-sonar operations, where operators listen for sounds in the water, versus active-sonar operations, which involves sending "pings" that bounce off undersea objects.
"Exercise participants will attempt to find submarines by listening with passive sonar and visually searching with aircraft and from surface ships," Costello said.
"However, to be effective -- to survive, to fight and to win -- sailors must be proficient at detecting submarines using active sonar from ships, helicopters, airplanes and submarines," he said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other organizations filed suit last week in Los Angeles asking for the restraining order, saying that use of mid-frequency sonar posed an unnecessary and avoidable threat to marine mammals and violated two fundamental environmental laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The court's order came three days after the Pentagon exempted the Navy from the marine mammal act.
"We've requested and the court has ordered that the parties meet and confer, and we are prepared to begin that conversation immediately," said Richard Kendall, senior litigation partner at the law firm of Irell & Manella, which is serving as co-counsel to NRDC in the lawsuit.
Costello said he is hopeful that the Navy can resolve these issues before a July 18 hearing on the restraining order. He said there needs to be a balance struck between national security and the Navy's desire to be "good stewards to the environment."
Costello said many factors cause marine mammals to become stranded, including pollution, disease, starvation and collisions with ships. For the past 20 years the Navy has used sonar in all of its RIMPAC exercises without marine mammal strandings attributable to the underwater noise, he said.
But two years ago, environmentalists said the stranding of more than 150 disoriented melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay occurred during a RIMPAC exercise. An April report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said naval sonar may have prompted the melon-headed whales, normally found in deep water, to seek refuge in Hanalei Bay, but there was no conclusive proof.