Military Base Expansion in the Desert West – Where are we Headed?

By John Hiatt   |  Currently, the Air Force is proposing to expand the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), in Southern Nevada, by some 300,000 acres, and the Navy wants to expand the Fallon Naval Air Station, in north central Nevada, by 769,724 acres, for a combined total of nearly 1.1 million acres. These proposed expansions come on top of the training facility expansions at Fort Irwin (Army), Twenty Nine Palms (Marines), and China Lake (Navy). It seems time to ask questions about need versus desire and what is the end game for military training facilities.

The Air Force and Navy both state that due to new aircraft that fly faster and higher than ever before and weapons systems (missiles) that are typically launched miles from the target, ever bigger buffer zones are necessary to protect the public from errant or accidental drops. At the same time military personnel admit that modern computer guided missiles are both very dependable and so expensive that they don’t usually use real missiles during training but rely on dummy missiles to give pilots the sense of how their planes fly with the added weight of armaments!

Both the Air Force and Navy also say they need more space for training of commando type units involving drop off and pick up by aircraft. Each branch of the military wants their own exclusive training facilities and is jealously protective of their space. Ironically, during an actual war all branches of the military are expected to cooperate and work seamlessly in a common battle-space. If working together in wartime is a necessity, then it seems like a sharing of training facilities at home not only makes sense but would enhance preparedness.

During World War II, there was an enormous expansion of military training facilities in many parts of the country, particularly in the West. The emphasis on the West was due to the fact that much of the nation’s federally owned public lands are in the West, and also due to the number of clear weather days available for aircraft operations. At the time of World War II, the human population in the Western US, particularly in the desert regions of California, Nevada, and Utah was dramatically smaller than it is today. In 1940 the population of Nevada was about 110,000, as opposed to some 3 million today, an almost 30-fold increase. While much of Nevada is still very sparsely populated, the growing populations of Las Vegas and Reno exert pressure on the rest of the State for resources and recreation and thus there is a conflict between proposed military base expansion and the civilian population.

Since the end of the draft following the Vietnam War, the proportion of the U.S. citizenry that has experience with military service, either directly or via family members has declined to a low of some 3% currently. This means that most of the people in this country have no relevant experience to enable them to judge whether the needs of the armed forces are in sync with the desires of those agencies. This leads to a dangerous situation in which the civilian population is paying the costs of our military but doesn’t really know what they are paying for or whether it is actually needed. This is the situation President Eisenhower referred to when he warned us to “beware of the military-industrial complex.”

For at least the last 150 years, military planners have been behind the curve, and offense has always been ahead of defense. In the Civil War defensive tactics largely failed to account for the improved accuracy and firing rate of rifles, as opposed to muskets, which resulted in the death of tens of thousands of troops on both sides. In World War I, tanks and aircraft changed the nature of warfare. In World War II air power, either land or sea based completely changed the balance of power. The human tendency is to make plans based on past experience rather than to think ahead. That is the type of thinking that the French relied on when building the Maginot Line in the 1930’s. During the last thirty years we have seen asymmetric warfare (insurgencies) stymie both Soviet and U.S. militaries. One of the most important threats to our troops in the Middle East today is the improvised explosive device (IED). These inexpensive, versatile bombs are easy to make and use with only minimal training and supplies.  We are currently engaged in this nation’s longest running war, Afghanistan, in which our hi-tech weapons have not proven very helpful. Better aircraft and smarter bombs don’t generally win the hearts and minds of people.

While the Air Force and Navy are pushing for expansion of conventional air warfare training facilities, the fastest growing part of the air arsenal is in the area of unmanned aircraft, which are cheaper to manufacture and fly. Admittedly, unmanned aircraft are more vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons than conventional piloted aircraft, but they are serving an increasing role in wars of insurgency. Since unmanned aircraft are remotely piloted, pilots can train on electronic simulators just as easily as with actual planes. The F-35, the newest fighter aircraft in the arsenal is essentially flown by the onboard computer system. Thus, it makes sense for most pilot training to take place in a computer operated simulator, which is not only dramatically cheaper but also allows for a much greater breadth of pilot experience than would occur during routine flight time. Ironically, the future of pilot training is on the ground, in a simulator, rather than in the air.

The Air Force uses more fossil fuel than any other branch of the military, including the Navy which has its own fleet of tanker ships just to haul fuel for the rest of the conventionally powered ships. If the military is going to shoulder its share of the burden of reducing fossil fuel usage in order to help meet the requirements of the Paris Climate Accord, then we will have to have fewer planes in the air rather than more.

Since both decisions will involve transfer of the assets of one government Department (Interior) to another (Defense), decisions about the two big Nevada base expansions will be made by members of Congress. The lead decision makers will presumably be the individuals chairing the Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate. It is imperative that these individuals have all the pertinent information available to help them make the appropriate decision. In addition to the military perspective, they will need a complete understanding of how warfare is changing and the long term ecological and social needs of our country as well. It is up to us to educate our respective members of Congress so that they can communicate the long-term consequences of military base expansion to their colleagues.

John Hiatt, a desert activist living in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a member of the CNRCC Desert Committee, and is a board member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness. His particular concerns have been water usage and protection of Wilderness Areas.