The Wild Blue Yonder is Shrinking

March 1, 2002

For decades, the Air Force has been enmeshed in a high-stakes struggle to fend off civilian encroachment on the airspace and weapon ranges it deems vital to its continued effectiveness in combat. The battle usually flared over the training of USAF’s aircrews. However, the encroachment problem now goes far beyond training. It affects development and testing of new weapons, the exercise of joint forces, and in a relatively new development, access to electronic communications frequencies long used by the armed services and now being eyed by the commercial telecommunications industry.

The Air Force’s most immediate difficulty still entails holding on to its share of the nation’s airspace and the weapons ranges it needs to hone the skills of its fliers.

The US services now have their own bases, test areas and ranges, and large zones of airspace specifically marked for their operations. However, their use of those spaces faces a growing number of impediments–both in the air and on the ground. Because of civilian encroachment in a variety of forms, the wild blue yonder is shrinking, and the legendary wide-open spaces that have been the military’s practice grounds are being gobbled up by developers and coveted by environmentalists.

In May 2001, Gen. John P. Jumper, then commander of Air Combat Command and now Chief of Staff of the Air Force, laid out the service’s predicament in stark terms. At a hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform, he said: “Maintaining continued access to our ranges and airspace is absolutely critical. In fact, if our ability to train our aircrews continues to diminish, America will soon lose its only edge in air combat proficiency.”

In future conflicts, Jumper said, the Air Force cannot rely solely on technology to give it the advantage. “It is only our superior training that enables our pilots to have the upper hand in air combat,” he said. “That training depends on the right amount and the right type of ranges and airspace.”

“National Assets”

Maj. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, USAF’s director of operations and training in the Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations, gave similar testimony to a Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee, calling the Air Force’s ranges and airspace “national assets.”

The House committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R­Ind.), and several of its members signed a letter to President Bush urging him to initiate reforms to address the problem. Then, last December, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz ordered a Pentagon working group to develop legislative and regulatory proposals on ranges “with a goal of obtaining relief in 2002.” A similar all-services effort is under way to protect the military’s use of airspace.

Holding onto what it has is only one of USAF’s problems. New, advanced aircraft that soon will enter the inventory will require more room to operate (airspace) and larger practice areas (ranges). This forthcoming expansion already faces challenges from airlines, environmentalists, local residents, developers, and many other competing interests.

The most visible conflicts have flared over traditional areas for practice bombing and gunnery. Air Combat Command operates nine such facilities and does most of the Air Force’s combat training. Its biggest facilities are the Eglin Range in Florida, Nevada Test and Training Range, Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, and the Utah Test and Training Range.

Other flying organizations–Air Education and Training Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command, US Air Forces in Europe, and Pacific Air Forces–manage ranges used mostly for individual crew training. Air Force Materiel Command has ranges for USAF test activities and Air Force Space Command runs the East and West Coast launch ranges.

There is nothing new about the range concept or the public objections to it. A major concern during World War I was that US crews were poorly trained in bombing and gunnery. It was mainly because they received little or no Stateside schooling and there were few uninhabited areas in Europe where they could practice. In World War II, the Army Air Forces opened hundreds of Stateside training bases, many of which had nearby “Primary Training Ranges” for the use of student gunners and bombardiers. Aircrew training bases used more distant practice ranges, most of them in sparsely populated Western states.

The key factor is that relatively few civilians were bothered by the air activity. Those who were bothered generally accepted the inconvenience as the price of victory.

Of ACC’s nine major ranges, seven date to World War II. Since that conflict, however, these facilities have been upgraded to accommodate electronic warfare and instrumentation systems to track and record aircraft maneuvers. The trouble is that the military is using land that others now want reserved for other purposes.

Scared Chickens

Concerns about airspace also have evolved over the years. In the early days of aviation, the military did most of the flying and, except for the occasional farmer who complained that the airplanes frightened his chickens, few Americans objected. Even the post­World War I barnstormers had no real competition for the use of the skies.

By the 1930s, however, commercial airlines were sharing the airspace and raising concerns about safety. In 1938, Congress created the independent Civil Aeronautics Authority, shifting the responsibility to license pilots, regulate the use of the airways, and develop the rules of flight from the Commerce Department. Later CAA’s functions were taken over by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA now manages the National Airspace System for both military and civilian users. It marks specific areas on a temporary or ongoing basis as Special Use Airspace, most of them for the military.

Nonmilitary fliers complain that these SUA designations put much of the country off-limits to all but military aircraft. USAF officials, however, point out that these restrictions are less extensive than they often seem. For one thing, many SUA restrictions apply only to certain altitudes. For another, the times at which the military can use these demarcated areas often are limited.

USAF’s need for airspace will grow, however, as it concentrates more units at fewer bases, acquires new aircraft, and adds more sophisticated systems. Air Force officials said the service will need:

  • Small ranges near bases for units to practice basic skills.
  • Intermediate-size ranges for more advanced training.
  • Large ranges where composite forces can conduct combat exercises.

For some purposes, crews can use instrumentation and simulation to practice, but they will still need places for firing live rounds and dropping real bombs. This means that the service will continue to fight for both air- and ground space and the right to use it at times compatible with its operational schedules.

Holding on to the current airspace and ranges will not be easy. Developing and expanding them for additional requirements will be even tougher. In his testimony, Buchanan said, “The legal and procedural requirements are more and more complicated and time consuming, and military needs can change quickly. … Our goal is to meet the military need while addressing and resolving, to the extent possible, public concerns and federal, tribal, state, and other agency issues.”

Building Partnerships

Echoing that sentiment was Col. Lynn Wheeless, chief of ACC’s Airspace and Airfields Division. “Realistic training is a critical part of military readiness,” said Wheeless, “which means we must work actively with the public to balance our training with their concerns. Building partnerships with the public and communicating our intentions and plans for the natural resources we share are the basic pillars of support to our training.”

This attitude contrasts with the public-be-dammed approach often attributed to the military, but the service has found it a necessary one in an era where local governments increasingly challenge the federal presence and private groups sue over environmental issues. In the mid­1990s, the Air Force set up a separate airspace and range staff at the Pentagon to work such issues, and ACC created a similar group to address them on a day-to-day basis. Since then, the Defense Department has moved to coordinate the efforts of all services.

Both the military and its critics use the term “encroachment” to describe each other’s activities. Developers, environmentalists, and Native American groups all say the military is encroaching on wildlife habitats, wetlands, tribal lands, or whatever areas they are trying to protect or use. The services, in turn, claim the civilian interests are encroaching on their traditional airspace and practice grounds.

Both are right to a degree. Today’s military aircraft are faster, more powerful, and noisier than those of the past and require more room to exercise. Although there are fewer of them, their presence is more noticeable.

At the same time, the services’ desires to avoid heavily populated areas have been frustrated by relentless development. Once-isolated bases now find themselves in the suburbs of the cities they tried to avoid, and remote areas once ideal for ranges have become popular recreation sites. It is less a case that the military has moved in on the public, officials say, than that the public has moved closer to the services and, once there, found its military neighbors objectionable.

In early 2000, the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability and the Center for Biological Diversity, a coalition of environmental and citizen groups, sued the Air Force for violating the National Environmental Policy Act and charged that low-level military training flights harm wildlife, livestock, and rural communities. The RAMA case eventually was dismissed, Wheeless said, but other similar suits still are pending in Texas and New Mexico.

Those new cases involve what the Air Force calls the Realistic Bomber Training Initiative. The idea, developed in the 1990s, was to expand B-1 and B-52 training in west Texas or New Mexico. At the time, bomber crews from Barksdale AFB, La., and Dyess AFB, Tex., were able to practice in Texas but had to fly as far away as South Dakota to use scoring ranges. That, the Air Force said, limited how often bombers could operate as a team, as they would in combat. If they could get all their training closer to home, it would save time and make the training more realistic.

Worried Ranchers

The Air Force considered two training sites in Texas and another in New Mexico and ran into opposition from local groups in all three places. West Texas ranchers formed the Heritage Environmental Preservation Association and mustered almost 500 members in an area already used for practice. HEPA said it could live with high-altitude flights but feared the impact of low-level training.

Similar opposition groups sprang up at other sites. A Congressman whose district was in one of the proposed areas said he understood the need for the training but feared it would put greater hardship on the already strained landowners in the area.

After extensive environmental impact studies, the Air Force announced its selection and began construction on an electronic scoring site southwest of Pecos. Opposition groups in the other areas were relieved, but local groups filed new lawsuits to block the project.

In other areas, the Air Force has addressed range and airspace problems such as unexploded ordnance, air quality, noise, and endangered species. All have proved complicated and expensive to solve.

The Air Force for many years has been clearing debris at its active ranges at regular intervals. Air quality has become a greater concern as the services have closed bases and consolidated their forces at the ones remaining. Many installations are in areas that are seeing rapid growth and increased pressure to meet air quality standards. To add units, increase activities, and introduce new weapons, the service must meet tough clean-air and occupational-health requirements not only at the bases but at the ranges they use. Again, the environmental studies and required remedies are costly.

Noise problems have been a concern from the days when the Air Force first introduced jet aircraft. When complaints mount, units chart the areas concerned and avoid them when possible. The problem, officials say, is that the number of refuges is dwindling.

Wildlife problems are a relatively new concern, but it is one that the service takes seriously. The Air Force is responsible for some nine million acres of land and water areas that form the habitat for almost 80 federally listed threatened or endangered species. The Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, for example, is home to the last remaining Sonoran pronghorn antelope in the United States. The service surveys the seven target areas there daily before it flies sorties. If it finds that antelope are present at a target site, USAF pilots don’t drop explosives on or strafe that target.

Safe Sturgeon

USAF’s Air Armament Center at Eglin AFB, Fla., faces similar problems. Its units release live munitions over the Gulf of Mexico. For this, the Air Force has worked out an arrangement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service under which FWS electronically tags and tracks gulf sturgeon to make sure they are not in the area when live ordnance detonates.

Still, officials warn, designation of range areas as critical habitat could seriously limit the service’s ability to modify missions on its lands. The key to addressing the problem, they say, is adequate science and good communication with the groups concerned.

Encroachment by the human species is another matter. A prime example is Nellis AFB, Nev., which has felt the explosive growth of the Las Vegas area and changing zoning rules beneath its flight corridors. The Air Force has acquired another 250 acres east of Nellis to prevent safety problems at its live ordnance loading area, but commercial and residential growth has forced operational restrictions on arrivals and departures south of the base, and increasing development beyond the northern runway poses similar threats.

In other areas, the Air Force has had to pay dearly to hold on to facilities. The service struck an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service in which it had to put up $15 million to use portions of the Desert National Wildlife Range that it has been using since the early 1940s. At Shaw AFB, S.C., it had to obtain permits from the Corps of Engineers to perform new missions at the Poinsett range, much of which is protected wetlands.

In other areas, there are concerns about the effect of aircraft noise on endangered birds. In the Southwest, the aircrews have had to modify their flight patterns during nesting seasons of species such as the Mexican spotted owl, the bald eagle, and the northern aplomado falcon. Again, such efforts to accommodate its neighbors cost the service both financially and in lost training time.

Officials recognize that such measures are the price of continued readiness, but in some cases the remedies also have created new problems. In the early 1990s, for example, ACC expanded its environmental programs and hired professional natural resources experts at most installations and ranges. This has helped reduce mission constraints, but it also has focused attention on the biological diversity of the bases. Officials are concerned that, as more areas are marked as habitats, their military use will be limited further.

The service has improved its relations with the Native American tribes, many of which live near bases and ranges. It now conducts operations with an eye to the impact on traditional cultural resources and lifestyles. Officials meet with tribal representatives to work out problems posed by the Air Force’s use of airspace. In the process, however, they have found that some tribes want the service to address issues such as health care, employment, emergency response, and facilities improvement.

In May 2000, an international conference identified a number of radio frequencies that it wanted tagged for possible use for cell phones and other forms of wireless technology. Clinton directed executive branch agencies to work with the Federal Communications Commission and the public sector to pick frequencies that FCC could auction off for that purpose.

The armed services argued that changing frequencies would generate billions of dollars in replacement costs, and the General Accounting Office recommended the sale be put off to allow more study. The Bush Administration ordered the delay and made plans for a February meeting between the FCC, the services, and other interested parties.

Like other encroachment issues, this one is not likely to see any quick solution. Competition for scarce land and airspace continues unabated. Burton noted that DOD’s answer to the encroachment problem has been to “work around” problems. “When we call upon our military … to go into harm’s way,” he warned, “we should do so only with complete confidence that they are thoroughly trained and ready.”

Buchanan told a House Armed Services Committee panel: “In the Air Force we have been able to make some accommodations. However, at the same time, we can rapidly see that if, in fact, we find ourselves having to restrict our training more, we’re going to find as we begin to move into the future and we lose this technological edge, we are going to run the risk of sending our young men and women into combat without clear assurance that they are going to have the edge that they need to be able to win.”

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Keeping Track of the Force,” appeared in the January 2002 issue.