Nation

What is Jade Helm 15 and why is it attracting controversy?

Bob Welch (standing, at left) and Jim Dillon held a sign at a public hearing about the Jade Helm 15 military training exercise in Bastrop, Texas, last April.
AP/File
Bob Welch (standing, at left) and Jim Dillon held a sign at a public hearing about the Jade Helm 15 military training exercise in Bastrop, Texas, last April.

Depending on your perspective, an operation starting on Wednesday could be one of the largest military training exercises ever — or one of the first steps in a planned government takeover that leads to martial law across a broad swath of the United States.

Called Jade Helm 15, the venture is a Special Operations exercise that has attracted tremendous controversy. And as it prepares to get underway, here’s a background guide on what you need to know:

Where will this operation take place?

In parts of seven states across the Southwest — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. But most of the operation is slated to take place in Texas, which is where much of the opposition has been based.

Are any other states concerned? Or is this just a Texas thing?

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Texas has generated the most vociferous opposition. But other states, including Utah, have expressed some concerns as well.

Still, that seems like a lot of states. Does the military normally do such big exercises?

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No. Although the military does conduct multi-state exercises, military officials have said that the size and scope of Jade Helm sets it apart from others. The military has said 1,200 troops will be involved.

Does the military need any state approval to do this? Or can they just show up?

Starting last fall, military officials began coordinating with state and local officials and sought local approval in the areas where the operations will take place. Some parts are taking place on private property, and the military says they have obtained permission from landowners. It is also taking place in the jurisdiction of local law enforcement, so those authorities have been notified of the exercise.

How long will it last?

For two months, from July 15 to Sept. 15.

Why is it being done?

The military has said that it needs to update training exercises, saying in a statement that it “periodically conducts training exercises such as these to practice core special warfare tasks, which help protect the nation against foreign enemies.” They have been seeking terrain that might be similar to the one found in areas in the Middle East, where many of its missions are taking place.

But don’t they have military bases for this kind of thing?

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The military argument is that its top forces are already familiar with those training areas. So they want to put them in unfamiliar settings for role-playing exercises.

Who is involved?

Participants include a variety of military branches, including Army Special Forces Command (Green Berets), Navy SEALS, Air Force Special Operations Command, and the 82d Airborne Division.

What are they going to be doing during the training?

The military has said that it will “further develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for emerging concepts in Special Operations warfare,” and that the operation will take place day and night. But military officials haven’t gotten into much detail, other than to say local residents will notice military vehicles on the roads — traveling to land being used for the training — or helicopters in the area. Local residents near the operation will see military officials, but only when they are coming into town to go to a restaurant or shop in local stores.

How did this gain so much attention?

Radio talk show host Alex Jones, who has built a career out of sensational claims, has been pushing the issue for months to his huge national listenership. In March, one of his staffers had obtained a document from a military veteran that included a Special Operations command map that listed Texas, Utah, and a portion of California as “hostile” for purposes of the military exercise. Jones viewed this as major news and told listeners that Texas was going to be invaded. “They’re going to practice breaking into things and stuff. This is going to be hellish,” Jones said. “Now this is just a cover for deploying the military on the streets . . . This is an invasion.”

A few weeks later, actor Chuck Norris also said he was worried about the operation, noting, “We must never check our brains or blindly trust, especially the government.”

Has it gained mainstream concern?

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Yes. Governor Greg Abbott in April requested that the Texas State Guard monitor the federal military operation. He emphasized that Texans support the US military, but blamed President Obama for sowing distrust.

“The cause of the underlying concerns is that we see instances, like a shooting in Fort Hood by a terrorist, that the president labels workplace violence. We see the president come to the border in Texas and say it’s safer than it’s ever been,” Abbott told Austin-based NBC affiliate KXAN-TV. “And so I think it was a misplaced perception by people in Texas who have problems with the Obama administration and connected that trust with the Obama administration to the military.”

What have been the other responses?

Jon Stewart called them the “Lone Star lunatics.” One former Republican state senator, Todd Smith, accused Abbott of “pandering to idiots.” And Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, when asked at a press conference whether the military was planning to take over Texas, responded, “No.”

What are people worried about?

Opponents are fearful not necessarily about this operation but that there will be more. In their view, the operation is one way for people to grow more accustomed to seeing military officers on average American streets. At some point, it won’t be an exercise anymore; it will become a way of life. Texas residents who are worried about this compare it to a frog that gets used to the hot water only to realize eventually that it was boiling.

Are people doing anything to prepare?

Some are. James Kellam, a 63-year-old retired school teacher, told me in Texas he would refuse to stop for any checkpoints, if they are set up. “We’re ready. My neighbors are ready,” he said. “If they set up checkpoints, I’m going to be belligerent. ‘What the [expletive] do you think you’re doing? Get the [expletive] out of my way.’ I’m going to test it. Someone’s got to test it.”

Related coverage:

Suspicion of US government reaches a new level in Texas

One reporter’s search for talk show host Alex Jones

What Texas brouhaha over military training tells us about the brain

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.