Information Warfare: Are Those Whales Working for the Chinese

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March 28, 2007: While the lawfare and public-relations effort on behalf of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay generates the bulk of the headlines, and even episodes of TV shows, another branch of lawfare, that has gone on longer and without the fancy press coverage, has expanded. The Natural Resources Defense Council had filed its fifth suit against the United States navy over the use of active sonar during training exercises. Not only that, but the California Coastal Commission has joined in with a suit of its own, trying to halt anti-submarine warfare exercises unless certain precautions are taken (which would wipe out a majority of the navys coastal ASW training).

These suits are just the latest in the long-running campaign on behalf of whales and marine mammals that has tied up SURTASS LFA, a low-frequency active sonar system which could detect submarines up to 180 kilometers away. The lawsuits have been expanded to include medium-frequency sonars like the SQS-53 and SQS-56, which are used on naval vessels.

These pressure groups want the navy to limit its training, just in case whales might get hurt. Never mind the fact that the Department of Defense already takes measures to avoid injury to marine mammals, and is spending millions to conduct research (and drawing fire from groups claiming that such research is wasteful spending). The environmental groups tend to get a lot of good press (often, their unverified claims get repeated as fact), usually from having stars like Pierce Brosnan (most famous for playing Remington Steele and James Bond) flacking for them.

The navy, though, is refusing to deal, instead focusing on maintaining the realism in its coastal anti-submarine warfare training. With several countries pursuing advanced diesel-electric or air-independent submarines (Venezuela is trying to purchase nine Kilo-class submarines), this is no small consideration. Perhaps the biggest advantage American forces have had is the fact that they carry out very realistic training. In 1991, troops returning from Desert Storm compared the fighting to exercises at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, with the caveat that Saddam's forces were not as good as their training opponents. Similar schools like Top Gun and Red Flag, along with exercises like RIMPAC, add to this edge.

The Navy has reason to be concerned about its ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) training, in light of the October, 2006 incident where a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced near a carrierc. Even in exercises, American carriers have been the victims of successful attacks. New technology, and the use of active sonar could help turn the tide against the newer classes of diesel-electric boats, but only if these systems get to the fleet, and sailors know how to use them. Realistic exercises today could prevent the massive damage done to the environment by a couple of ships being sunk.

As this case gets hammered out in court, the navy will continue in its efforts to get realistic training. The navy takes steps to protect marine mammals from harm before, during, and after exercises, but it gets very little credit for its efforts. One can has to wonder whether environmentalists really think whales are more important than properly training sailors. If the NRDC and CCC get their way and the training is shortchanged, a lot of sailors and marines could get killed as a result. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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