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Navy seeks to expand special operations training in Pacific Northwest

Ballistic missile submarine USS Nevada (SSBN 733) transits through Washington state's Puget Sound on its way back to its home port of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, January 14, 2015.

AHRON ARENDES/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By JULIANNE STANFORD | The KitsapSun (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 27, 2018

Curious onlookers might soon spot gear-laden warriors scaling the towering cliffs at Deception Pass State Park or a drone hovering above one of Naval Base Kitsap's installations as the Navy seeks to expand the scope of special operations training in the region.

The Navy has conducted SEAL training in the Northwest for the past 30 years, and the growing demand for special operation missions "has triggered the need for an increase in the training tempo," said Navy Region Northwest spokeswoman Sheila Murray.

The Navy initially released a proposal in April 2017 with a plan to expand operations. After accepting comments on that proposal and refining it, the Navy released an updated draft environmental assessment on Jan. 23 that called for ramping up training in the region even further.

The proposal would increase the size of training groups and add more training cycles in the Northwest per year in addition to adding a few new skills to the line-up for trainees to practice.

If the Navy moves ahead with the proposal, training blocks would increase from the current level of two per year to six. Each training block would increase from 70 special operations trainees and support personnel to 84 who would arrive in the state for two to eight weeks of training.

Not all of the trainees and support personnel would operate in the same area at the same time. They'd be dispersed throughout multiple training events that would occur throughout the region. Each exercise would last anywhere from two hours to three days. At most, a training site could be used 36 times a year, while some as few as three.

The 2017 assessment expanded the proposed training area along stretches of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the southwestern Washington coastline, including most of the shoreline in Kitsap County. Training would be conducted on state-owned public land, private land with the owner's permission and Department of Defense land.

The Navy was granted permission in 2014 to begin using public lands for training at Scenic Beach, Illahee and Blake Island state parks in Kitsap County and at Mystery Bay and Fort Flagler state parks on Marrowstone Island, near Naval Magazine Indian Island in Port Townsend Bay. Since then, curious onlookers have spotted small, black submarine-like underwater vehicles in the water just off the at Tracyton boat launch and at Bremerton's Evergreen-Rotary Park.

With the updated environmental assessment, the Navy added potential training sites in Discovery Bay and Dabob Bay in Jefferson County, the Port of Anacortes, and at the Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Tacoma.

Additionally, some privately owned properties were added to the list after "people began offering up their properties for training," Murray said.

On McNeil Island in Pierce County, the proposed training area is smaller than what was described in last year's proposal "due to wildlife restrictions."

"These changes reflect what the Navy was hoping to achieve with the early outreach meetings," Murray said.

In the Northwest, special operations trainees already practice diving, swimming, observation techniques, moving across beaches onto land and the launching and recovery of submersible watercraft.

In the updated proposal, they would practice using new technology, such as unmanned aircraft systems, unmanned underwater vehicles and remotely operated vehicles.

They would also go through building-clearing simulations with training weapons that shoot water-soluble plastic or paint pellets. They would practice high-angle climbing techniques, such as negotiating cliffs and rock faces "to develop infiltration and retrieval of climbing equipment techniques."

These types of training exercises were "added to reflect what the trainees may be asked to do on a mission," Murray said.

Even with the increased frequency of training exercises and group sizes, Murray said it should have a negligible impact on the community because one of the primary training goals is for operators to learn how to move without being noticed.

"Keep in mind, as part of the rigorous training, the trainees learn skills needed to avoid detection along with the goal of leaving no trace of their presence during or after training activities but to also ensure naval special operations personnel are prepared for deployment worldwide," she said

The training would not use live-fire ammunition, explosive detonations or manned air operations. Trainees would be prohibited from leaving trash or gear behind, digging, cutting or removing vegetation, climbing trees, or building campfires or other infrastructure. They would rarely reuse travel routes to minimize the impact on the training environment.

Murray said the Northwest presents a unique set of conditions that prepare trainees for missions in any and all situations.

"Puget Sound, including Hood Canal, as well as the southwestern Washington coast offer unique and varied aquatic-coastal conditions which create opportunities for realistic and challenging special operations training in a safe, sheltered, cold-water environment," Murray said.

Those "realistic" conditions include operating in rain, fog, and low visibility. Trainees are able to practice navigating tides and currents that replicate many extreme and diverse conditions found in waterways across the globe, and the Northwest offers the opportunity to practice that navigation in both open-ocean and inland waterways.

Murray estimated the Navy would make a decision on whether to proceed with the proposed training schedule sometime late summer or fall, at which time increased training activities would begin.

The Navy will host three public meetings in February, all from 5 to 8 p.m., for the public to learn more about the proposal and comment on it.

The first will be held on Feb. 6, at the North Kitsap High School Commons in Poulsbo at 1780 NE Hostmark St. Meetings will follow Feb. 7 in Port Townsend and Feb. 8 in Oak Harbor.

The Navy will also accept comments through Feb. 21 via email at nwnepa@navy.mil or by written comments mailed to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, Attention: Project Manager, EV21.AW at 1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203, Silverdale, WA 98315.

The proposal can be found at https://navfac.navy.mil/NSOEA.

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©2018 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)
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