November 13, 2008: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that national
defense needs overrule environmental rules, at least when it comes to using
active sonar to train sailors to detect enemy submarines. Based on recent
experience with Australian and Swedish diesel-electric subs, the U.S. Navy has developed new anti-submarine tactics and
equipment. In secret, obviously. But attempts to test the new anti-submarine
techniques have been thwarted by lawsuits. Over the past decade, animal rights
groups have succeeded in getting courts to rule that the navy use of their
anti-submarine training center near San Diego is illegal, and use of sonar must
be limited (because of possible harm to marine animals). The navy keeps
fighting the lawsuits, and was faced with the prospect of abandoning the training
site, for one somewhere the lawsuits can't reach. The training site is
expensive because it is wired, with under water sensors that enable training or
test results to be precisely recorded, and changes made to equipment or
tactics. The center also enables sonar operators to get realistic training.
There is no opportunity to get trained on the job, as mistakes can get your
ship quickly sunk.
Meanwhile, potential enemies build more
of their cheaper, and higher quality, diesel-electric boats, and train their
crews by having them stalk actual warships (including U.S. ones.) The subs are
getting more numerous, while U.S. defenses are limping along because of the
sheer technical problems of finding quiet diesel-electric boats in coastal
waters, and the inability to train and test enough because of lawsuits.
The Supreme Court ruling will slow
down, but not stop, the activist lawyers and their lawsuits. This sort of
lawfare is a new, largely post-World War II, development. Sonar is not the
first time a navy has harmed underwater creatures. Warships have been doing
harm to marine life for as long as there have been navies. But priorities
change. Now it's fashionable to take up the cause of the marine life, even to
the point of crippling national defense.