Environmental Protection:

DOD Management Issues Related to Chaff

NSIAD-98-219: Published: Sep 22, 1998. Publicly Released: Oct 2, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Defense's (DOD) use of chaff and its long-term effects on the environment, focusing on: (1) the extent and locations of chaff use; (2) its reported known and potential effects; and (3) the initiatives being taken or considered to address chaff's unintended effects.

GAO noted that: (1) chaff is used worldwide in conjunction with military training, testing, and other assigned missions; (2) in fiscal year (FY) 1997, the Air Force reported using about 1.8 million bundles worldwide, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft used more than 354,000 bundles and 593 rolls, and Navy combat ships used about 10,000 large bundles; (3) DOD records indicate that FY 1998 inventories include more than 37 million bundles and more than 141,000 rolls of chaff; (4) the Air Force holds about 77 percent of the bundles, while the Navy and Marine Corps hold all the rolls; (5) the Army has some mission needs but possesses and uses little chaff in peacetime training or testing; (6) while DOD components report that chaff is an effective means of defense for aircraft, ships, and related weapons systems, DOD and other agencies have identified some unintended and potential side effects of chaff; (7) chaff can affect safety by interfering with air traffic control radar; (8) chaff can also affect weather radar observations and the operation of friendly radar systems, especially when vehicles stir up chaff that has settled on the ground; (9) the services have a number of ongoing initiatives to address concerns about the unintended and potential effects of chaff; (10) for example, DOD has entered into or is negotiating agreements with other federal agencies to address issues related to commercial air safety, weather forecasting, and environmental impacts on public lands; (11) also, the Navy has started a program to develop degradable chaff that is estimated to cost about 40 percent more than the current chaff; (12) while intended as beneficial, the Navy has not yet defined the operational and environmental benefits that could result from this program; (13) notwithstanding DOD's actions, some concerns continue to be raised by the public and federal agencies about the potentially harmful or undesirable effects of chaff on the environment; (14) also, some of DOD's studies cite additional areas where questions have been raised about the unintended effects of chaff; (15) DOD has not systematically followed up on these questions or on the recommendations of these reports to determine whether they merit additional review; and (16) DOD continues to retain lead-based chaff in its inventory even though this type of chaff has not been manufactured since 1987 and is reportedly no longer in use.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIRSYSCOM) has postponed a decision to purchase degradable chaff, may discontinue degradable chaff research, and is currently supplying regular chaff to naval aviators. These decisions were based on the findings of the Select Panel Review of Chaff (discussed in recommendation #2) which published its report in 08/1999. The report found, based on available data, that environmental, human, and agricultural impacts from chaff are negligible, but recommended further research. The Program Manager for the degradable chaff program said the Navy will await the findings from the additional research (see recommendation #2) to be completed by 08/2001, before they make a final decision concerning degradable chaff.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy to study the costs and benefits of the degradable chaff program before making a production procurement decision.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations and Environment, in consultation with his counterparts in the Air Force and the Army, recommended that a Blue Ribbon Panel of non-government scientists be established. The Select Panel of university-based research scientists, each with published expertise in fields relevant to the subject area, was established in April 1999. The panel was asked to review the environmental effects of chaff used by the U.S. military in training exercises in and around the continental United States and to make recommendations to decrease scientific uncertainty where significant environmental effects of chaff are possible. Their report was issued 8/31/1999 and recommended additional work. Additional research was contracted on 8/30/2000 that will determine the break up, abrasion, re-suspension, shape, and distribution of chaff. The contractor will prepare a report detailing research methods and results.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to determine the merits of open questions made in previous chaff reports and whether additional actions are needed to address them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Air Force will identify all remaining lead-based chaff in its inventory. All lead-based training chaff will be eliminated and all combat chaff containing lead will be clearly marked and will only be used to meet combat requirements. According to the responsible Air Force officer in the Air Staff Office of Ranges and Airspace, all chaff containing lead has been removed from Air Force training and combat inventories.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to prepare a specific plan to ensure that chaff containing lead at inventory control points and military installations is located and eliminated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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