- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

National defense is a core function of and a primary justification for national government. An implicit contract exists among a nation’s people, its government and its military. The government promises to provide its people and their interests with the best defense possible. It promises to provide the military with the best training and armaments available.

The military promises to do the best job possible to protect the nation from invasion and to prosecute wars in defense of the country’s interests and ideals. In turn, the people promise to support the military and provide funds necessary to carry out its designated functions.

Lately, the U.S. government has not been keeping its end of the bargain, placing the lives of citizens and soldiers alike at risk. This became especially apparent when the government recently announced a court settlement under which the Navy would not be allowed to use cutting-edge sonar technologies to protect the U.S. coast from quiet diesel submarines — like those used by North Korea.

Some scientists fear the sonar might have caused the death of beaked whales that beached themselves in the Canary Islands soon after an international naval exercise last year. Researchers did necropsies on the whales and found 10 of the 14 dead animals had a condition similar to decompression sickness or the “bends.”

We no longer confront the Soviet Union with nuclear-armed submarines cruising off our coasts. However, rogue states around the world armed with conventional submarines could launch missiles killing thousands of people on the East and West Coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico area absent the use of various types of sonar now facing restrictions. While there are exemptions to these restrictions during times of war or heightened threat conditions, these may be too late since any enemy planning to attack the U.S. is unlikely to warn us first.

This sonar study’s sample was very small. Further doubt springs from the inconsistency of its findings with other similar studies and the skepticism of many scientists that rapid ascents cause the bends in whales that should have evolved mechanisms to avoid decompression.

Even if the findings of this study are nevertheless correct — we should ask: Isn’t the government morally obligated to put the lives and safety of its citizens and its men and women in uniform ahead of the health of whales? If not, the world is now a topsy-turvy place, whose leaders lack a moral compass.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy is not the only branch of the armed services impaired by environmental restrictions. The Pentagon has said federal regulations governing endangered species among other environmental regulations are the No. 1 obstacle to military training.

The National Center for Public Policy Research has noted that mechanized units from Fort Irwin in California cannot train in the Mojave Desert at night because they might run over a desert tortoise — even though nighttime combat operations are the norm in conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At Fort Lewis, in Washington state, 72 percent of training land is considered critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, though none are known to live there. Various federal rules restrict operations at 83 percent of Fort Hood in Texas.

In addition, at Camp Pendleton, California — the only West Coast amphibious training base — regulations protecting the tidewater goby fish and other species have reduced the beach available for Marine Corps amphibious assault training.

At the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, the Defense Department must ensure before test flights that no endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelopes living on the base are within firing range of any target areas. If just one antelope is spotted anywhere nearby, a target is eliminated from training.

Since the restrictions were put in place in 1997, they have resulted in cancellation of 40 percent of the live-fire training missions. As Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, put it: “We’re faced here with a choice between the Sonoran pronghorn and conducting a realistic training for our men and women… in harm’s way.”

These are hardly isolated cases, since more than 300 plants and animals on the endangered species list are located on military installations. How many casualties have the U.S. armed forces suffered due to environmental restrictions on military training? No one knows, but even one is too many.

If the horrific terrorists’ assaults of September 11, 2001, taught us anything, it should be that the world, even after the end of the Cold War, remains a dangerous place. Accordingly, concerns, however noble, for endangered species should not be allowed to jeopardize the safety of our nation and its defenders.

H. Sterling Burnett is senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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