Amid concern from some residents, the U.S. Air Force is preparing to move forward with its plan to conduct as many as 160 urban war games a year in nine towns and cities across southwestern Idaho.
Those war games, or “training events,” would include unarmed members of the military dressed as plainclothes civilians stationed in some of southwestern Idaho’s urban locations, such as downtown Boise. Military personnel on the ground would communicate with U.S. Air Force planes overhead, and the two groups would work together to find targets, which aircraft would identify with “low-power, eye-safe lasers,” according to a document released by the U.S. Air Force. The training events might take place during the day or at night, and U.S. Air Force officials have stressed the need for training to take place in a city setting to simulate “urban environments encountered in combat.”
The military conducted an environmental assessment to evaluate the possible consequences of such training and has determined southwestern Idaho would see no significant environmental impact. That study is public and online, and residents have until Oct. 20 to comment on it. After that, the military officials will make their decision.
Some Idaho residents have voiced concern about the proposal, both due to the nature of the training and the manner in which the U.S. Air Force has implemented the project. Despite multiple public meetings on the subject, they say the military has not been transparent enough with residents and has failed to take their concerns into account.
Urban Close Air Support Training
Months ago, officials from the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base proposed a regimen of “urban close air support training.” It’s a style of training the military has used since the 1990s, and it’s designed to prepare military personnel to fight in cities and towns.
The training mixes military personnel with civilians in the community, but because those personnel are dressed as everyday residents, and are “trained to behave in a manner typical to any community member to avoid drawing attention to themselves or the operations,” residents may be unaware the training is taking place. Military personnel would drive unmarked cars and travel through public spaces. The training would not include any weapons, according to military documents.
“Ground support teams would not interfere with civilian traffic or pedestrians,” according to the military's environmental assessment, and military personnel would obey all local laws where the training would take place.
The training would require planes to fly between 10,000 and 18,000 feet to various locations in southwest Idaho, including many in the Treasure Valley. In general, according to the project’s environmental assessment, two military aircraft would be in the air above a town or city at a time, communicating with military members on the ground.
Troops would train both during the day and during the night, according to the documents. Initially, authorities at Mountain Home Air Force Base pushed for the plan to allow 260 training days a year but “decided to reduce the proposed number of operations by approximately 40 percent following coordination with stakeholders and public communities during scoping events,” according to the environmental assessment.
The current proposal includes 160 training days a year. That doesn’t mean all training would take place in Boise or even the Treasure Valley — the proposal includes other towns, such as Jerome and Burley. Still, the Air Force has emphasized the need to train in the “urban canyons” created by tall buildings, and Boise is by the far the largest city in the massive swath of proposed territory where the training would take place.
Earlier this year, U.S. Air Force officials compiled a list of public stakeholders who would be affected by the proposed training. It included heads of local government as well as organizations such as the Idaho Conservation League and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s how Katie Fite, public lands director for the WildLands Defense, heard about the project. From the beginning, she opposed the idea — she feels it is far too invasive because, she says, it more or less forces everyday residents to take part in military training — and so she watched the public notification process as it unfolded.
What she saw disappointed her.
The Air Force scheduled multiple “scoping meetings” throughout southwest Idaho. The meetings, military officials said, offered residents the chance to voice their opinions and ask questions about the training.
But, Fite said, the meetings were poorly publicized.
“They only mailed things out to a few people,” she said. “It was all kept very quiet.”
Fite thinks most people who knew about the proposed training, and the scheduled scoping meetings, knew about them only by word of mouth. That was true of Boise resident Anne Hausrath, who had a friend tell her about the first public meeting in April, held at a library in Boise. She felt U.S. Air Force officials sidestepped residents' questions.
“They were vague at our public meetings about the role and intent of the people on the ground,” said Kathy Railsback, another Treasure Valley resident who attended the meetings. “It’s just strange to have these people in civilian clothes going around in unmarked cars communicating with planes up in the air.”
Though the military walked back the number of proposed training days, authorities also increased the number of people on the ground, Fite said. It didn’t allay her concerns about the training.
No impact statement
Through the Air Force-commissioned environmental assessment, researchers determined the training wouldn't have a significant environmental impact.
But, Fite pointed out, the military conducted an assessment, not a more in-depth environmental impact statement. The results of the assessment meant the Air Force was not obligated to draft the impact statement.
At the two public scoping meetings, though, Hausrath said U.S. Air Force emphasized the fact that the training would have only “minimal long-term adverse effects.”
“What does that mean?” she mused later. “What’s minimal? Who’s going to monitor it?”
A third of the planes used in the training would belong to the Republic of Singapore, according to the environmental assessment. The planes belonging to the Republic of Singapore are F-15SGs, and normally remain at Mountain Home Air Force Base. They would, however, participate in the urban war games.
That struck Hausrath as odd, she said, and made her wonder if it then established a precedent whereby foreign militaries could train over cities in the United States.
Railsback also felt concerned by the fact that foreign pilots could be conducting military training in southwestern Idaho. Plus, she said, the training was presented to residents as necessary for the United States military — why foreign troops will be included was not clear, she said.
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Mosier, spokesman for Mountain Home Air Force Base, said the pilots have a contract to train with the U.S. Air Force. Since they are on the base, it made sense to have them train with other U.S. Air Force pilots.
A permanent project
Fite is concerned about the morality of the training as well as their logistics.
“Is there some sort of constitutional challenge to this?” She said. “You’re using people, intruding in people’s lives one way or another.”
Railsback had similar concerns, she said.
“(Troops are) engaging in simulated warfare in an American city,” she said. “All of a sudden Boise is a combat zone. ... I don’t think it’s healthy for our democracy.”
Plus, she said, the project appears to be permanent. After attending both public meetings and reading through the public documents on the subject, she is unaware of any sort of recourse or evaluation available to the public for recourse. In addition to that, Fite said, there may be more military activity to come.
“It’s very disturbing and the thing is, no one knows what this could morph into,” she said.
Other people have expressed support for the proposed training.
Mike Journee, spokesman for the city of Boise, said the city government is not opposed to the project.
“We’re aware of it,” Journee said. “They made us comfortable with it, given the information we asked for.”
He said city leaders wanted to be sure the training was “not disruptive,” and were satisfied they wouldn’t be, after meeting with military representatives.
Some of the people who sent emails to U.S. Air Force officials to comment publicly on the project also voiced support for it. The military made those email correspondences — both supportive and disparaging — public, as well.
One Boise resident wrote those who oppose the project are a “very small, very vocal group of naysayers in Boise who have nothing better to do than solicit others to oppose anything to do with fighter jets, Gowen Field, or military ops in general.”
“They rely on misinformation, outright lies, and propaganda to spread their venom,” the resident wrote. “The vast majority of Boise and the Treasure Valley supports this training op.”
Neither Fite, Hausrath nor Railsback voiced dislike for the military in general. In fact, at times they expressed concerns for the safety of the military personnel training in the cities and towns, because they might scare or provoke people, they said.
But all three felt the project was too invasive and too secretive to move forward.
“It appears that this decision is going to be made by people who were not elected by anybody,” Hausrath said. “Who are they accountable to?”
*Editor's note: This story has been updated: The U.S. Air Force confirmed military personnel will not be stationed on buildings.