Navy seeks expanded area for Northern Edge drills in 2023

Two men walking on the deck of an aircraft carrier
Crew members handling fighter jets as they take off and land onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt during exercises in the Gulf of Alaska during Northern Edge 2019 (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. Navy says its warships will need more room to maneuver during next year’s military exercises in the Gulf of Alaska. It’s going through the permitting process and accepting public comment on the proposal next month.

The Navy conducts live-fire exercises in federal waters east of Kodiak Island and south of Prince William Sound as part of the military’s Northern Edge training exercises.

John Mosher, a civilian environmental planner for the U.S. Navy, says military leadership has decided the current 55,000-square-mile area is too tight for maneuvers by its half-dozen warships

“The area that we were kind of restricted to operate in was just too limited,” he told CoastAlaska on Tuesday. “It wasn’t a realistic way of maneuvering our vessels and our aircraft as they would in a real world scenario.”

The Navy is proposing to add a 246,000-square-mile zone that would extend westward as far as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. It would be used for transiting and not for live-fire drills or active sonar usage, both of which would only be conducted in the existing area.

The drills have been criticized in the past by some who object to their scale, timing and location due to its proximity to fishing grounds and sensitive habitat.

But Mosher says past exercises haven’t created any problems for fishing boats or civilian shipping in the area.

Our vessels typically operate further away from the main channels, the main fishing grounds, things like that,” he said.

A map showing the Gulf of Alaska and southwest Alaska
The Western Maneuver Area is the expanded area proposed by the U.S. Navy for 2023. The military says live-fire drills and active sonar would remain limited to the existing “Temporary Maritime Activities Area” that it’s used in the past. (Image courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Navy also says it won’t detonate explosives in waters that are less than 4,000 meters (13,120 ft.) deep. Mosher says that pledge is in response to comments from Alaska Native tribes and the commercial fishing industry.

It eliminates the potential for effects on fish, on marine mammals, on marine birds and then also minimizes the potential to overlap with fishing activities,” he said.

Northern Edge is a biennial training exercise conducted in and around Alaska. It’s headed-up by the Air Force and involves service members from every branch of the military. It was last held in June 2021 and included an aircraft carrier.

The precise dates of the 2023 exercises haven’t been announced. In the past, military vessels have broadcast on automatic identification systems transponders. Mosher says whether that would happen next year is up to military planners.

A 45-day comment period will collect comments on the Navy’s proposal to expand its area of maneuvers during 2023’s Northern Edge exercises.

The Navy announced Tuesday on its Gulf of Alaska website that it’s seeking to amend its existing environmental impact statement for the proposal. A formal decision is expected in the fall, the Navy says.

Chris Woodley of the Groundfish Forum, which represents trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska, said several commercial fishing groups are just now reviewing the Navy’s plans and didn’t have any immediate comment.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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