Two U.S. Marine Corps’ (USMC) AV-8B Harrier jets were forced to drop 4 bombs on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia this week, NBC News is reporting, citing two unidentified U.S. officials.
The incident occurred on July 16 while the jets were flying on a training mission that would have them drop the ordnances on a bombing range on Townshend Island, an island off the coast of Queensland in Australia.
For an unidentified reason, the bombing range was not cleared by the time the jets reached it, forcing them to pull back. According to the news report, the jets could not land with the ordnances still on board and after circling around, they soon began running low on fuel.
“They chose to save the aircraft,” NBC News quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying.
Each jet dropped two 500-pound bombs on the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral marine in the world. Fortunately, two of the bombs, BDU 45s, were inert to begin with and thus did not explode. The other two ordnances, GBU 12s, were unarmed when the pilots decided to drop them and have not yet exploded.
U.S. officials told NBC News that the pilots and their commanders and chosen a spot in the sea to drop the bombs that was the least likely to impact the coral reef’s rich marine life. The report said the location where the bombs were dropped was “roughly 16 nautical miles south of Bell Cay” at a very deep channel—60 meters (about 197 feet) — in the sea.
The U.S. officials also told NBC News that there was very little likelihood either of the GBU 12s would explode, and the USMC is apparently planning an operation to remove the bombs. U.S. and Australian officials are also investigating the incident, the report said.
As noted above, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world, stretching 348,000 square kilometers and boasting a large and diverse animal and plant life. In 1981, the United Nations named it a World Heritage Site.
In recognition of its importance, the Australian government has heavily regulated the area since 1975, when it set up a marine park in accordance with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act passed that year.
According to a government website, “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, along with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, use permits to ensure the conservation, reduce impacts and monitor activities upon the reef.”
In 2009 Australia named the marine park a matter of national environmental significance, which gives it protection under Australia’s central environmental protection law, The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.
The Australian and Queensland governments are currently undertaking a strategic assessment of the coral reef in an effort to ensure its sustainable development over the long-term.
It’s unclear what effect this week’s incident will have on the U.S. Marine presence in Australia, if any.
In November 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new pact whereby up to 2,500 U.S. Marines would be deployed to Darwin, Australia on a rotational basis, where they would train with their Australian counterparts. Each rotation would last six months. The Obama administration depicted the new deployment as a significant part of its so-called pivot to Asia.
The first Marines began arriving in April of last year, when a group of 180 U.S. Marines descended upon Darwin where they were greeted by Australia’s Defense Minister, Stephen Smith.
Smith said last month that between 200 and 250 U.S. Marines were now deployed in Darwin at any given time, but that the Australian government had given its approval for this number to increase to over 1,150 by sometime next year. The full size deployments of 2,500 Marines are not expected to start until 2016 to 2017.
In announcing the increase in Marines next year, Defense Minister Smith had said the Australian government would continue to undertake assessments of how the U.S. Marines’ presence is impacting the area before agreeing to larger deployments. Presumably, the latest incident will be included when this next assessment is made.
This is not the first time the U.S. military has accidently disrupted reefs in the region. Back in January the USS Guardian minesweeper got off course and ended up atop the South Atoll of the Tubbataha Reef, a no-sail zone and UN marine protected habitat in the Sulu Sea in the southern Philippines. The vessel damaged 2,346 square meters (25,252 square feet) of the Reef and sparked outrage in the Philippines at the time.
Eventually the ship was removed from the Atoll and the U.S. later agreed to pay US$1.5 million to the Philippine agency in charge of protecting the area.