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Air Force appeals ruling against urban training in Idaho

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Air Force is appealing a federal court ruling preventing exercises that had military jets coordinating with plain-clothed soldiers on the ground in cities in Idaho as part of an urban warfare training program.

The Air Force filed the appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday. The military says air support for ground forces is increasingly required in urban combat areas.

The U.S. Justice Department, which is representing the Air Force, didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for comment sent through its online media inquiry portal. Monday was the 60-day deadline for the Air Force to appeal.

Seven Boise residents and an environmental group filed the lawsuit last year contending the training endangers the health, safety and quality of life of residents and wildlife.

An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, flies during a Red Flag 15-3 sortie at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in July 2015. (Siuta Ika/Air Force)
Judge grounds Mountain Home AFB urban training plans in Idaho

The judge ruled the Air Force must conduct a more thorough environmental impact statement, which fully accounts for the noise of the overhead fighter jets. That EIS must then be approved before the training exercises can resume in nine urban centers.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled in October that the Air Force violated environmental laws by not adequately studying how noise from the military jets could harm humans and wildlife.

Dale agreed with the plaintiffs that the Air Force hadn’t done a good job with an environmental assessment it created to OK the flights. She also said the Air Force didn’t address sleep interference the fights might cause, adequately back up its claim that the flights wouldn’t interfere with people trying to have a conversation, or support its conclusion that birds and wildlife would not be affected by the noise.

Dale ordered the Air Force to conduct a more thorough study called an environmental impact statement before the training exercises can resume in nine urban centers. The jets would fly over Boise, Mountain Home, Burley, Twin Falls, Grand View, Bruneau, Glenns Ferry, Hammett and Mountain Home Air Force Base.

“This was not a close question,” said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, who is representing the group. “This was the Air Force not doing a very good job in their environmental analysis. I would think the court of appeals will be troubled just like the district court was.”

Court documents said a four-aircraft formation would produce a loudness equivalent to a vacuum cleaner. The training flights would originate at Mountain Home Air Force Base. The military flights involve two to four F-15E and F-15SG aircrews plus plain-clothed soldiers on the ground to simulate urban combat.

Boise residents complained to the mayor’s office in 2015 about noise from the military flights, prompting the Air Force to stop the previously undisclosed urban training program and begin preparing the environmental assessment. The study found that the training flights would have no significant impact on humans or wildlife.

The Air Force proposed 160 training events involving 400 training operations to prepare aircrews before being deployed abroad. Of those training events, 120 would include a maximum of three hours of flight over an urban center per day. Up to 40 annual training events would include day and night training operations, according to court documents.

During the training, the jets would fly between 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

In a related matter, the Air Force announced in October that it wants to fly supersonic fighter jets at lower altitudes in lightly populated areas of southwestern Idaho, northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon to better simulate combat conditions.

The Air Force said it plans to prepare an environmental impact statement to study that idea.

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