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News | Oct. 8, 2008

Supreme Court Hears Navy Sonar Case

By Department of the Navy Department of the Navy

The Supreme Court heard Oral Argument Oct. 8 regarding the Navy's use of active sonar during major training exercises in Southern California. 

"This case is important to our Navy and our nation's security. I appreciate the Supreme Court's willingness to take the case and afford us the opportunity to be heard this morning," stated the Secretary of the Navy, Donald C. Winter. 

The U.S. Solicitor General, Gregory G. Garre, opened his argument before the nine Supreme Court justices, stating that the Navy's training is vitally important to Navy strike groups deployed around the world and to our national security.

On behalf of the Navy and Department of Commerce, the U.S. Solicitor General, in his merits brief, challenged the restrictions imposed by the lower courts. The Navy's position is that the lower court's decision is legally erroneous and conflicts with the judgment of Congress, the President and the nation's top naval officers. The preliminary injunction prevents Navy strike groups from conducting realistic training with mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar off the coast of Southern California. 

The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles handed down its original ruling in August 2007 and, in January 2008, imposed burdensome training restrictions that the Navy determined would unacceptably put the Navy's ability to deploy trained strike groups at risk. These included a requirement to shut down sonar altogether when marine mammals are within 2,200 yards of any sonar source and to reduce sonar power by 75 percent when the Navy detects significant surface ducting conditions, whether or not a marine mammal is present. Surface ducting conditions are characterized by a mixed layer of constant water temperature extending at least 100 feet below the surface. 

The 2,200-yard shutdown zone is 11 times greater than the existing shutdown distance that the Navy developed in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

The requirement to reduce sonar power by 75 percent during significant surface ducting conditions, whether or not a marine mammal is present, will prevent Navy strike groups from conducting training to detect submarines in the same conditions in which submarines seek to hide.

The district court ruling was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Feb. 29. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case June 23, which led to the oral argument.

The Navy strives to reduce the environmental impacts of its training and to promote environmental stewardship while effectively conducting operations that are essential to national security. During anti-submarine warfare active sonar training, the Navy implements dozens of different measures to protect marine mammals established by the Navy in cooperation with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Beyond environmental compliance, the Navy also is a world leader in marine mammal research. The Navy recently invested $25 million toward several research goals. For example, the Navy is researching the distribution and abundance of protected marine species and their habitats and is working to improve the understanding of the effects of sound on marine mammals. 

The Navy must conduct realistic anti-submarine warfare training by using active sonar at sea to prepare sonar operators for combat. The acoustic complexity of the ocean environment, particularly in shallow water areas where the Navy hunts for quiet diesel submarines, makes real-world training a necessity. Even the best simulators cannot effectively emulate the underwater environment. When Navy men and women go into harm's way, they need to be trained and ready. 

While the case remains in the Supreme Court pending decision, the Navy and the Department of Commerce continue to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) that will analyze training with mid-frequency active sonar as part of a more comprehensive study of training in the Southern California operating area to ensure continued compliance with environmental regulations in that area. The EIS is expected to be completed in December.

Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, had this to say in reflection of the day's events, "I appreciate the work the Department of Justice has done in moving this vital issue forward, and I am pleased the Supreme Court heard the case today. A well-trained Navy is key to defending our security and prosperity." 

All briefs are available at: