Some of the conspiracy theories being offered about this summer's eight-week US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)-led "Jade Helm 15" military training exercise seem stranger than fiction. The general suspicion is that the exercise is an Obama administration attempt to invade the state of Texas.
At one point, right-wing conspiracy sites speculated Walmart was "in" on the Obama administration's plan to invade the state, suddenly closing down stores to provide "food distribution centers" to the military and allowing them to use a pre-existing system of secret underground tunnels to launch the takeover attempt in the state.
It's a Tom Clancy novel on steroids, and the typical stuff of Texas' ever-growing right-wing conspiracy culture, which won a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott this month, when he directed the Texas State Guard to watch over the Jade Helm 15 exercises set to take place across several Texas counties this July.
The mainstream media and much of the independent media have been right to publicly call out (and poke fun at) Gov. Abbott and some Republican presidential candidates for giving Texas' conspiracy culture far too much credence. However, the exclusive emphasis on some of the more bizarre theories emerging out of rural Texas counties has overshadowed valid concerns from activists about a much larger ongoing domestic military expansion, of which Jade Helm 15 plays a significant part.
Truthout's Dahr Jamail has reported extensively on the Navy's ongoing use of nearly every US coastal state's land and air for its realistic training exercises and war games. In recent years, these exercises have included electromagnetic warfare training and the testing of sonar devices, despite evidence of the exercises' harmful effects on marine animals and pushback from concerned environmentalists.
"According to the Pentagon, between 1985 and 2012, the US military had completed at least 92 joint land use studies in preparation for expanding its domestic training, which proposed expansions in all but 16 US states," Jamail writes.
Several branches of the US military, including the Air Force, Army and most prominently, the Navy, are encroaching on public and private lands to expand "realistic" warfare-training exercises domestically. Despite some of the more cockeyed theories to emerge about Jade Helm 15 recently, the realistic training exercise fits into this quiet military expansion in an unprecedented way.
Jade Helm 15 is an eight-week, SOCOM-sponsored, joint-military and inter-agency, unconventional warfare training exercise, which will be conducted throughout parts of Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida running this summer from July 15 to September 15. As part of the training, Special Forces from at least four branches of the military will role-play, conducting imaginary covert missions on territories labeled "hostile" in Texas, Utah and southern California, and travel from state to state in military aircraft. (Texas' designation as "hostile" in the imaginary scenario seems to be a primary catalyst for some conspiracy theories.)
In a recorded presentation given to city council members of Big Spring, Texas, Thomas Mead, an operations planner for the exercise, told city leaders that personnel from every branch of the military will be participating in the exercise, including US Navy SEALS, US Marine Special Operations Command, US Marine Expeditionary Units, the 82nd Airborne Division, SOCOM, and agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to a SOCOM press release, the training isn't quite like other routine military trainings, due to its unprecedented size and scope. "While multi-state training exercises such as these are not unique to the military, the size and scope of Jade Helm sets this one apart," the SOCOM release states. Jade Helm was originally slated to take place across eight states; however, Colorado is no longer taking part in the training after activities planned there were changed to another military unit. Despite this, Jade Helm 15 will become the largest SOCOM multi-state exercise to be conducted domestically, according to a SOCOM FAQ sheet released to Truthout.
SOCOM states it's conducting the exercise to train US Special Forces to respond to an international crisis and protect the nation from foreign enemies. Military personnel are expected to engage in scenarios focused on "infiltration and exfiltration of personnel and equipment, personnel recovery operations, integration of conventional forces, airborne operations, aerial resupply, long range movements and exercising command and control elements," according to the FAQ sheet.
SOCOM has its own budget within the DoD and has requested a $10.547 billion budget in fiscal year 2016. Part of that budget is going to initiatives like Jade Helm 15, which is designed to test military personnel in an emerging Special Forces doctrine known as the "human domain," which emphasizes studying social, cultural and economic conditions of war zones.
The training will traverse public and private lands, and military bases across the seven states, with the permission from private landowners and state and local authorities, whom SOCOM officials have already begun to approach in several Texas counties, setting up public meetings this month. According to SOCOM, about 1,200 soldiers are expected to participate in Jade Helm 15 war games across 17 locations in Texas this summer, with residents seeing a military presence of approximately 60 soldiers in local towns adjacent to the training locations, some of whom may be dressed in plain clothes and carrying guns with blank ammunition.
SOCOM plans to conduct the large-scale Jade Helm 15 training on an annual basis, noting that the amount of personnel and aircraft expected to particpate may change from year to year. Mead also told Big Spring city leaders that residents there could expect noise (potentially including sonic booms) from low-flying aircraft and increased air traffic during the night, including the use of helicopters. Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria, a SOCOM spokesman for the training, also said there will be two Humvees and a tank used to carry water, called a water buffalo, which residents may see around Big Spring.
Big Spring's mayor, Larry McLellan, told Truthout the military has already contracted with some landowners in the town to conduct the exercise on their land. McLellan said the military has agreed to repair any damage to the land that may occur due to the exercise, but compensation is not part of the contract. "I've had people tell me how crazy I am, and the council, as far as allowing this," McLellan said, referring to some right-wing conspiracy theorists he's encountered.
But anti-militarization activists outside Texas - who do not share the conspiracy theorists' political leanings - point to the Jade Helm 15 exercise as just the next phase of the military's domestic encroachment. Carol Miller, founder of the nonprofit Peaceful Skies Coalition (PSC) in New Mexico, has carefully tracked such encroachment ever since the Air Force tried to turn an area near her community into "a realistic bombing initiative."
"I don't buy into the 'Obama's going to come and take our guns' - that aspect of it - but there are good reasons to actually want to look at what's happening," Miller told Truthout.
PSC has already started pushing back against the exercise in that state, sending a letter to Gov. Susan Martinez, urging her to notify the Department of Defense (DoD) that any training activity related to the Jade Helm 15 exercise should be restricted to the state's military bases - which include some of the nation's largest. According to SOCOM, the activity in New Mexico is slated for Cannon Air Force Base.
But it's the prospect of increased and unnecessary training incursions that has activists like Miller worried about the kind of precedent the changing dynamic of an annual Jade Helm 15 training may set not just in her own state, but throughout the southwest.
Across the seven southwestern states in which the exercise will take place, there have already been a number of recent expansions of military training areas. For example, in 2014, the Utah Test and Training Range had 700,000 acres added to the perimeter of a bombing range to give more space for F-35 pilots to test missiles.
Furthermore, no environmental impact statement (EIS) has been released publicly for the Jade Helm 15 training. Such environmental assessments are standard for military trainings; the National Environmental Policy Act mandates them. In its FAQ sheet, SOCOM states that, "[a]s this exercise is taking place in seven states, and several regular military training locations, there is minimal additional [environmental] impact than from regular training in that area."
While SOCOM released that statement to Truthout in its FAQ sheet, it did not respond to Truthout's specific requests for an EIS for Jade Helm 15.
"Where are the progressive attorneys that might want to intervene? They were watching Jon Stewart and laughing at the landowners in Texas," Miller told Truthout. "So our ally list is growing thin. It's really just people who have been directly impacted."
While SOCOM officials haven't publicly released an EIS for the exercise, Lt. Col. Lastoria has indicated that "risk assessment" was part of their planning process. Moreover, plenty of joint land use studies have been conducted by the military across the southwest region, which detail potential environmental impacts of military activity. Several studies lay out the particular concerns and vulnerabilities for southwestern terrain, including the impacts of water use in regions experiencing ongoing severe drought, and an increased risk of wildfire.
In fact, concerns about the potential for a wildfire run deep in Bastrop County, Texas, where the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire has left lingering trauma in the community - a crucial part of the reason why residents there have reacted so strongly against the Jade Helm 15 operation. In the "Heart of the Pines" neighborhood, some homes are still only half reconstructed even to this day. The 2011 wildfire was one of the most destructive fires in Texas history, with many residents losing their homes to the blaze.
Lt. Col. Lastoria has reportedly told residents there will be three medics on hand, as well as fire extinguishers. Depending on conditions, he said, the military would not use smoke grenades if they could potentially spark a brush fire.
A renewed emphasis on unconventional warfare, including using noncombat techniques to win over "hearts and minds," and understanding social science to wage psychological operations in communities has followed on the heels of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2013 white paper, "Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills," by Gen. Ray Odierno, who heads Special Forces command; Gen. James Amos; and Navy Adm. Bill McRaven, who is chancellor of the University of Texas, lays out the argument.
According to a report at the Austin-American Statesman, McRaven has been at the vanguard in the push for increasing training in the human domain. "As we look at the human domain, it's kind of the totality of the cultural, the ethnic, the social fabric that makes up the people that live in a particular area. You have to know that before you can make any decisions," he said before the US House Committee on Armed Services, while giving testimony in March 2014.
This new emphasis is one reason why SOCOM is interested in conducting training across rural swaths of the southwest, with access to towns. SOCOM has said military personnel will have to operate independently, asking help from local residents for their operations. Mead told Big Spring City Council members during his presentation that military personnel might ask residents to help secretly transport them by hiding, "in the back of a horse trailer, in the middle of the night," for example. "In the scenario that we built, [soldiers] are going to have to operate outside … normal support mechanisms and rely on the folks, the civilians that are in the area, to be able to support them."
Anti-militarization activists see this idea as problematic, playing a role in normalizing the presence of uniformed soldiers in communities amid an already-troubling trend of creeping police and federal militarization across the nation.
Such worries are not without precedent. A report in the Guardian in 2014 details how a DoD research program is funding universities to use social science to prepare for mass civil breakdown by modeling the dynamics and risks of large-scale civil unrest across the world. The program, the "Minerva Research Initiative," seeks "to improve DoD's basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US."
According to the report:
Prof. David Price, a cultural anthropologist at St. Martin's University in Washington DC and author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State … has previously exposed how the Pentagon's Human Terrain Systems (HTS) programme - designed to embed social scientists in military field operations - routinely conducted training scenarios set in regions "within the United States."
Citing a summary critique of the program sent to HTS directors by a former employee, Price reported that the HTS training scenarios "adapted COIN [counterinsurgency] for Afghanistan/Iraq" to domestic situations "in the USA, where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order."
Jade Helm 15's emphasis on mastery of the "human domain" fits into this context of the DoD's troubling social science research, conducted in partnership with universities across the US. This context also includes the acceleration of governmental mission creep and militarization of many government agencies' federal police forces.
Additionally, Jade Helm 15 comes on the heels of concerning Special Forces realistic urban war game scenarios in cities such as Houston, where low-flying Blackhawk helicopters and armed soldiers in camouflage descended on a Houston school, bewildering residents who weren't warned. Similar exercises involving Blackhawk helicopters have taken place in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Dallas and Phoenix.
"It's this whole process of normalizing the unacceptable, and that's what worries me," Miller said.