Does The Military Really Need More Desert Bombing Ranges?

The Department of Defense's recent request to close off additional public lands in Nevada is simply unreasonable in light of the vast amount of land already available to the military for testing and training purposes.  The military is preparing to ask Congress to expand two of its test and training ranges in Nevada by as much as 1,416 square miles, including portions of popular public lands outside of Las Vegas. 

The military has not explained why the 21,000 square miles of existing test and training ranges throughout the southwestern states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico are not sufficient (this total does not count other training ranges in other states and the Pacific Ocean, or smaller military facilities in the southwestern states). At this early stage in the environmental review process, the military has only explained that expanding the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR) would “improve the range’s capacity to support testing and training.” For the proposed expansion of the Fallon Range Training Complex, the military contends that it needs new lands to accommodate newer technology weapons.  Neither of the proposals consider the use of existing military ranges in the region.

Current Nellis Range A "Straitjacket"?
The Nellis Test and Training Range expansion would include wildlife habitat currently protected by the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and open to the public for 4x4 touring, camping and hiking.  The Air Force told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it needs to close public access to additional portions of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge to install new radars and threat-emitters for training simulations.  The Air Force has already prohibited public access to half of the Refuge, which itself is only a portion of the total Nellis Test and Training Range.  The Air Force claimed that the current training range, totalling 4,608 square miles, is a "straitjacket," an incredulous statement considering that the range is already as large as Los Angeles County!

The military is conducting an environmental analysis and will solicit public comment, before asking Congress to legislatively expand the ranges.  If approved by Congress, the Nevada land withdrawals would be the latest in a series of expansions over the past two decades, surpassing the size of training ranges needed for conflicts and wars over the past century. The total area of training ranges in the southwestern states alone surpasses the 18,000 square miles of land that General Patton used to train troops during World War II.  War has become more automated and precise since World War II, but apparently this still requires a lot more land?

Military Already Prohibits Access to Vast Expanses of the West
Below is a list of the significant test and training ranges in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.  Public access is prohibited or extremely limited across these ranges:

  • China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (Navy) - 1,718 square miles
  • Fort Irwin National Training Center (Army) - 1,000 square miles
  • Edwards Air Force Base (Air Force) - 481 square miles
  • Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center (Marines) - 1,136 square miles
  • Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range (Navy and Marines)  - 712 square miles
  • Nellis Test and Training Range (Air Force) - 4,608 square miles (not including new request for an additional 471 square miles)
  • Fallon Range Training Complex (Navy) - 316 (not including pending request for an addition 945 square miles)
  • Yuma Proving Ground (Army)  - 1,300 square miles
  • Barry Goldwater Range (Air Force) - 2,968 square miles
  • Utah Test and Training Range (Air Force and Army) - 2,624 square miles 
New Mexico
  • White Sands Missile Range (Army) - 3,200 square miles 
  • McGregor Range (Army) - 947 square miles
Although the Department of Defense makes an effort to protect critical wildlife habitat within its test and training ranges, some impacts are inevitable and strain already besieged wildlife species. Consider the plans by the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center to displace over 1,100 desert tortoises to make way for its recently approved expanded training area in the Johnson Valley of California.

Desert bighorn sheep. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service
If the Air Force is allowed to expand operations in the Desert Wildlife Refuge, they will inevitably harm desert wildlife such as bighorn sheep.  Increased low-level flight activity and possibly even the use of live munitions would scare or endanger wildlife in the area.   The Department of Defense should undertake a serious review of its testing and training ranges to see where it can leverage existing facilities operated by the various military services, instead of each service staking claim to its own corner of America to bomb and strafe our mountains, valleys, and wildlife.

You can find additional documents and the schedule for public comments for the proposed Nellis and Fallon range expansions at the following sites:

Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) Military Land Withdrawal Legislative Environmental Impact Statement Project Website

Fallon Range Training Complex Modernization Website


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