• Wind projects off Brunswick County beaches would also interfere with military training and operations, including airspace used daily by the 169th Fighter Wing out of South Carolina
  • The Wilmington East wind energy area is more than three times larger than the City of Wilmington and would be filled with turbines reaching 853 feet tall
  • The commander of the 169th Fighter Wing warned BOEM of turbines creating radar clutter, restricting supersonic flights, and severely limiting air combat training

The previous brief discussed serious concerns that the U.S. Department of Defense has with several planned offshore wind facilities off the coasts of several mid-Atlantic states. The Pentagon warned the Biden administration that these facilities would cause serious problems for U.S. military operations, facilities, and training.

The Kitty Hawk wind energy area, being developed off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, is one of the worst ones the Pentagon highlighted.

For similar reasons, South Carolina military representatives and advocates have long opposed the offshore wind facilities placed within military flight training and operating areas off the S.C. coast. There have been many areas discussed as potential sites for offshore wind turbine arrays without respect to South Carolina’s extensive Military Operating Areas and numerous training mission routes.

Unfortunately, those also include the Wilmington East and West (“Carolina Long Bay”) wind energy areas planned off Brunswick County beaches (North Carolina, adjacent to the South Carolina border).

Wilmington East and West (“Carolina Long Bay”) wind energy areas

Palmetto State policymakers have sought to protect military training and operations from interference from offshore wind facilities. When the South Carolina House debated a bill in 2018 concerning development of offshore wind facilities, legislators included language acknowledging and protecting military training and operations at the request of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force. The bill passed the House but never received a vote in the Senate.

The “military use of the Military Operating Areas must not be impaired by the installation of wind turbines in areas incompatible with their continued use for vital military training purposes,” legislators had declared. They recognized the importance of South Carolina’s coastline to national defense, being “the location of 52,000 square miles comprising the Regional Military Operating Area bordering coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina … provid[ing] critical flight training areas to support the mission of military aviation forces in the southeastern United States.”

Military testing and training ranges, mid-Atlantic states

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

A 2018 Charleston Post and Courier article explained the problems posed to military operations and training mission routes by enormous turbine arrays:

The military’s concern is real. The Navy wants to renew a five-year permit that allows a sea and air warfare-training range along 50,000 square miles off the East Coast, including South Carolina, starting 12 miles out.

The bigger turbines under development rise as high as a football field is long, with blades stretching out 60 feet. The turbine housing itself is as big as a passenger jet. Radar, particularly older radar, picks up the turning blades and the signal could be misread. 

The issue of radar disruption from offshore wind turbines is significant. In February 2022, a major report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that offshore wind energy arrays interfere with radar systems. The report found that “wind turbine generators have significant electromagnetic reflectivity, and therefore can interfere with radar systems operating nearby” and that “The rotating blades can also create reflections in Doppler radar systems.”

Wilmington East wind project would severely interfere with the 169th Fighter Wing training airspace

The commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, South Carolina Air National Guard, warned the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) about several dangers concerning the Wilmington East wind energy area. In his public comments to BOEM, Colonel Quaid H. Quadri, Jr., wrote of the danger of radar clutter and potential for tall turbines restricting supersonic flights and severely limiting air combat training.

Quadri noted that developing the site would result in “a large number of towers 600+ feet above the water” placed “within the confines of airspace used primarily to train fighter aircraft from the USAF [Air Force], USN [Navy], and USMC [Marine Corps].”

It’s worth noting that towers now under consideration for the site would stand 853 feet above water. They would be spread out over a very large expanse of sea — the Wilmington East wind energy area is over three times larger than the City of Wilmington.

Located south of Bald Head Island, the Wilmington East wind energy area is of particular importance to the 169th Fighter Wing, Quadri noted:

The 169th Fighter Wing is a daily user of the airspace overlaying the Wilmington East WEA. The W-161 and W-177 warning areas and Tailhook ATCAA are the only local airspace that is approved for supersonic flight and has the range to execute air to air tactics. The potential for supersonic flight restrictions, such as 15 nautical mile exclusion zones seen in overland training areas would severely limit the ability to execute air combat training. Additionally, the height of the proposed wind turbines will reduce the area available to conduct low altitude training. 

Radar clutter is also a significant concern, not just for fighter pilots but also for air traffic control and fire control radars. The commander explained that,

Air to air engagements require the use of radar systems. Studies conducted by the Air Force Research Lab in conjunction with the University of Texas and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology identified that wind turbines are a significant source of radar clutter. This clutter is capable of delaying and breaking radar locks and affects both Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Fire Control Radars alike. A 127,000 acre source of radar clutter in the airspace will hinder ATC’s ability to safely control aircraft and degrade critical and uniquely available combat training.

Furthermore, the huge, sprawling Wilmington East wind energy area with all those massive towers would be only 20 nautical miles from the Port of Wilmington. Quadri warned, “Enabling a source of radar clutter in close proximity to a strategic port creates a significant vulnerability.”

The next brief in this series will discuss research and U.S. Coast Guard warnings about the problems of radar clutter and other matters of maritime safety related to offshore wind turbine arrays.