Hypersonic Weapons Testing Faces a Big Problem: Killer Whales

Washington State officials want the U.S. Navy to modify a training program predicted to cause harm to killer whales and other marine mammals living in the Puget Sound area. The Navy plans to test a variety of weapons along the West Coast during a seven-year period, including what the The Seattle Times describes as a “projectile” flying at “seven times the speed of sound.” This is undoubtedly the Navy’s new Hyper Velocity Projectile, a hypersonic weapon designed to bombard enemy territory and shoot down enemy missiles.

The Seattle Times writes that the Navy’s planned, routine seven-year exercise period has run into opposition from Washington’s governor, attorney general, and state agencies, all of whom state that the exercises would affect local marine mammals “hunting, feeding, socializing, and breeding,” including orcas in the southern Puget Sound region. The proposed exercises would take place in the Navy’s Northwest Training Range Complex, a swathe of ocean 250 miles running along the West Coast from California to Washington. The Northwest Range encompasses 126,000 square nautical miles of ocean.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), passed in 1972, prohibits the killing of all types of marine mammals. Further, it prohibits “take,” which is defined as “to harass, feed, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal, or to attempt to do so.” The Navy estimates the southern population of killer whales in the Puget Sound region could be subject to the non-lethal take two to 51 times a year during the seven years of Navy activity. Other marine mammals could be subject to similar take nearly two million times over the same period.

A 2009 survey of wildlife by the Navy reported that blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, sperm whales, killer whales, north pacific right whales, stellar sea lions, and sea otters are among the marine mammals that live in the Northwest Training Range Complex. All are protected by the MMPA, and some additionally by the Endangered.

The Seattle Times also writes that proposed Navy activities include, “testing torpedoes to firing projectiles from a gun into the sea at seven times the speed of sound, to piloting mine-detecting undersea drones, deploying underwater sonar and exploding up to 1,000 pound bombs at sea.”

Animal rights and marine conservation activists have long contended that the use of active sonar, which broadcasts powerful blasts of sound of up to 235 decibels to help detect enemy submarines, is dangerous and even lethal to underwater marine mammals. Some groups want the Navy to merely limit the use of sonar and other loud underwater activities while others seek an outright ban.

HVP is a new projectile fired from the U.S. Navy’s Mk. 45 127-millimeter deck guns. Previously described as traveling at Mach 3, the weapon is now apparently capable of speeds of up to Mach 7.3, or 5,600 miles an hour. HVP is expected to be able to not only engage enemy land targets ashore and enemy warships but also to shoot down incoming cruise missiles, sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, and even ballistic missile warheads. The HVP will be a huge boost in capability to guided missile cruisers and destroyers fitted with the gun system.

A marine mammal will not want to be anywhere near a Mach 7 projectile when it splashes into the water, and indeed the Navy typically posts spotters to avoid potentially harmful activity when whales are in the area. But state officials claim Navy attempts at harm mitigation are not enough, and one scientist quoted by The Seattle Times believes military estimates of possible harm are “shaky and make believe”.

Source: Popular Mechanics.


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