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Air Force's proposed urban warfare training raises questions for some Idaho residents

Environmental Lead for the Mountain Home Air Force Base Sheri Robertson and Major Adam Mattheis meet with concerned residents at the Boise Public Library over proposed training.
Environmental Lead for the Mountain Home Air Force Base Sheri Robertson and Major Adam Mattheis meet with concerned residents at the Boise Public Library over proposed training. Idaho Statesman

Concerned residents from across the greater Boise area met at the Boise Public Library on Wednesday evening for a scoping meeting to discuss a proposal over urban warfare training by the military.

The proposal, composed in January, suggests an Urban Warfare Close Air Support (CAS) Training Range for F-15E fighter planes across nine urban centers in Idaho. Current training taking place over the Saylor Creek Bombing Range and other rural areas would be moved to more residential areas. The nine sites are Boise, Mountain Home, Burley, Twin Falls, Grandview, Bruneau, Glenns Ferry, Hammett and Mountain Home Air Force Base.

The urban centers are divided into three categories (small, medium, large), with Boise being classified as the lone large area.

The 366th Civil Engineer Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base is gathering information for an environmental assessment, which means the need for the proposal has already been established by the squadron.

Creating a training space over urban areas is crucial, according to Mountain Home Air Force Base. Practicing over urban areas gives a more realistic feel than over deserted ground or fake cities, the Air Force said. The base flew similar training from 2010 to 2014.

“We don’t have the ability to train to the challenges of an urban (area),” Maj. Adam Mattheis said. "The stuff on the ground is real ... chaos is real. That’s the benefit to doing the training over one of these nine urban areas."

There would be ground troops involved in addition to the fighter planes, consisting of a maximum of five vehicles designated as either friendly or belonging to enemy forces. Rather than using actual bombs or guns, the planes will simulate neutralizing a target on the ground by using invisible lasers.

"From the airplane we would be talking to the friendly forces," Mattheis said. "They would be wearing civilian clothing and they would not have any weapons.”

The forces on the ground wouldn't enter buildings or leave their vehicles for more than a few minutes, said Sheri Robertson, the environmental lead for Mountain Home Air Force Base.

The training would take place 10,000 to 15,000 feet above ground, according to the proposal. Generally speaking, two planes would be in a given urban airspace for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, though a maximum of four planes is allowed. After each mission, the airspace would be cleared for two to three hours.

A group of nearly 40 residents voiced their concerns with the proposal at Wednesday's meeting. One issue was the noise and visibility of the planes in the air, and their effect on everyday life.

"The potential to see them exists, but I'd say unless you're trying to find them, it would be pretty hard to see," Mattheis said. "If you’re not actively trying to hear it, maybe you hear it.”

Some at the meeting also voiced health concerns. Charlene Quade, a Boise resident and lawyer, questioned the safety of the lasers the planes use. Though the lasers are invisible, she said, they could have adverse impacts. Robertson said the effects of the lasers are being studied in the environmental assessment.

"What is that impact? What will that have on the body? You have citizens that are being exposed to that without their own knowledge, and they may have an adverse health impact as a result," Quade said. "Do I have to worry about a learning disability (in a child)?"

Another woman in the crowd said the idea of living in areas where training exercises occur made her "feel like I'm being sucked into this video game that I can't get out of."

Sherry Gorrell, who was born in Boise and owns a rental home in the city, believes that such training would disrupt "domestic tranquility." She referred to Boise in its current state as "livable" and "enjoyable." That might change if the proposal is approved, she said.

"When I heard there was going to be training for execution and practice of war, that concerns me. The idea that jets are going to be flying, using lasers, over my city ... I'm so concerned. There were so many questions that were not able to be answered."

Attendees also took issue with how creating a training zone could negatively affect the mental health of veterans and refugees who may have post-traumatic stress from previous war exposure.

"(I'm worried about) the psychological impact of having fighter jets flying over our city, and the adverse impact on the psyche of that," Quade said.

Most in the audience believed that city officials should have been in attendance and that the meeting was poorly publicized.

Not everyone in the crowd was opposed to the proposed training grounds, however. Greg Neu, whose son is a B-52 navigator, believes that the training is absolutely necessary and that the possible repercussions are outweighed by the positives.

Those opposed to the training have "misplaced hysteria" and a "not in my backyard" mentality, he said.

"That's what these guys are needing. You can't do this with simulation," Neu said. "This training has to take place."

After the environmental assessment is completed, the next step is a thorough analysis and release of the assessment draft to the public.

In other words, it's still early on in the process.

Though comments from the meeting are to be answered in the assessment, Quade said she didn't feel like her voice was heard. She said she isn't sure there's anything anyone can do to stop the proposal from going forward.

"I honestly would have no particular idea of how you would stop this. ... It feels like it's coming," she said. "(But) the minute I don't stand up for the things I believe in is the minute I'm complicit."