Madison, Wis. — As environmental victories go, it's small and rather late in the game. But those activists applauding a recent federal court decision that temporarily curbs the United States Navy's plans to expand a submarine communications project say they hope to turn the minor delay into a major defeat.
Project ELF, which may be stalled for as much as a year unless the Navy appeals the ruling, involves a partially built antenna network in the northern woods of Wisconsin and Michigan. Its aim: to send coded signals at an extremely low frequency (ELF) to submerged US ballistic missile submarines. Unlike higher frequency radio signals, which cannot travel far under water, ELF signals would allow the Navy to contact its submarines at their operating depths. Currently, submarines must surface or trail a long antenna to receive messages.
The Navy insists that without the ELF system its subs are more vulnerable. The Navy has said ELF is essential to the security of its Trident fleet now under construction. Critics counter that ELF is outmoded, hazardous to human health and behavior, and effectively steps up the US-Soviet nuclear arms race.
The project has been proposed under other names and on a larger scale since the late 1960s. Mothballed by the Carter administration but given the green light by the Reagan White House in October 1981, its history has been one of uncertain stops and starts. It is expected to cost $370 million, more than one-third of which has already been spent.
Environmentalists - later joined by peace groups - have vigorously fought ELF. ''Stop Project ELF,'' a 2,700-member Madison-based group with a branch in Michigan, has long been at the core of the opposition.
Polls taken over the years suggest most residents of affected areas don't want the project. Their congressmen as well as the current governors and senators of both states - with the major exception of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Robert Kasten - oppose ELF. And a House Appropriations Committee report two years ago concluded, ''ELF is an outmoded concept in search of a mission and should be discontinued.''
Yet Congress has continued to fund the project on a year-by-year basis. Using federal land near Clam Lake, Wis., the Navy built a 28-mile antenna some years back, which has been operating as a test facility. Last December the Navy used federal condemnation power to acquire the right of way to use Michigan state forest land for an antenna that will be twice as big and linked to the Wisconsin system 165 miles away.
It is those plans for Michigan, the two-state linkup, and improvements in the antenna system in Wisconsin that have currently been put on hold by the court's ruling. The state of Wisconsin sued the Department of Defense last July on grounds that the Navy was relying on an outdated (1977) environmental impact statement. The court ordered the Navy to provide an updated statement.
Though project opponents have long argued that exposure to the radiation of ELF transmissions is hazardous to health and behavior, ELF's military role has increasingly come under fire in recent years. Many critics, including Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Anthony S. Earl, argue that ELF is mainly an offensive rather than a defensive system.
''To us, it's clearly a first-strike communication system,'' insists David Merritt of Stop Project ELF.
''It would be impossible to do a preemptive first strike without Project ELF, and it's far too slow a system to assist in any retaliation,'' agrees Tom Hastings of Citizens Against Trident/ELF, a group whose members favor civil, nonviolent action as a means to its goal. Members of the organization have pulled up survey stakes on, or ''desurveyed,'' as Mr. Hastings says, about 80 percent of the Michigan land that the Navy has staked out for construction.
The Navy prefers to stress ELF's communications role. But a Navy spokesman, Lt. Tom Yaeger, says the first-strike charge, has no validity. ''The only purpose of ballistic missile submarines is to deter an attack - we hope never to have to use them. ELF enables them to be more survivable (in a nuclear attack) because they don't have to go to the surface to communicate. The likelihood of nuclear war is decreased because there is less incentive for the Soviets to strike,'' he says.
Capitol Hill criticism of ELF, however, has increasingly centered on whether its technology is up to date. The system can transmit three code letters every 15 minutes to subs within range of the antenna (which the Navy says covers about one-fourth of the ocean's surface). Many in Congress have been urging use of ELF funds instead to step up research into the potential of the so-called blue-green Strategic Laser Communications System that contacts missile submarines with a beam of light. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (D), for instance, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has voted for funds for the laser system for the last five years, calls it a potentially quicker, more capable, and more survivable communications system than ELF.
The Navy agrees that the laser system is worthy of more research, but Lieutenant Yaeger says it will not supersede ELF and that both systems are needed.
For the moment, the recent court ruling gives all parties more time to review priorities. Environmentalists are heartened - if only temporarily.
''The decision is a glitch but not a cabosh,'' warns Peter Anderson of Wisconsin's Environmental Decade.
''We see ourselves back on the offensive with this court ruling,'' says David Merritt of Stop Project ELF. ''Up to now we've carried the responsibility for proving why the Navy shouldn't continue. This puts the burden on them.''
The opposition's great hope has always been to persuade Congress to cut off ELF funding or help elect a new president who will stop the project. But US Rep. Bob Davis (R) of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, long against the project on technological grounds, says he is convinced that Congress will continue to help and that ELF will march on to completion.
''I'm not for it - I'm still against it,'' he says. ''But you get to the point where you're just beating your head against a stone wall. We have tried to cut the money from the budget several times but (it's been restored).''