It is, according to Chuck Norris, “likely more than a military exercise”.
For senior Texas politicians, it is enough of a concern that they demanded it be monitored by state armed forces. And for a great many citizens, it is at best a secretive and dubious show of military might and at worst, the prelude to martial law, Barack Obama confiscating their guns and locking innocent Americans in internment camps.
Whatever it truly is, Operation Jade Helm 15 begins on Wednesday in states across the south-west. Hundreds of people will be waiting for the troops when they roll in, watching closely.
A counter-surveillance operation called Counter Jade Helm has been set up and volunteers are aiming to locate, track and observe US soldiers as they carry out training drills. The volunteers will gather intelligence that will be relayed to a headquarters in Arizona and posted on a website.
“Why [Jade Helm] exists, we’re not quite certain,” said Eric Johnston, who will run surveillance teams in central Texas. Counter Jade Helm also plans missions in California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
“They’re not inviting any media to embed with the units,” said Johnston, “and it’s important for Americans to step up and look around and say, ‘OK, what are you doing?’ ‘Well, it’s secret.’ Not if it’s in public – it’s no longer secret.”
The two-month exercise has been described by the US military as a routine, though unusually large, training event for a variety of units that will take place on both private and public land in order “to practice core special warfare tasks, which help protect the nation against foreign enemies”.
The pushback has been especially strong in Texas, where some of the army’s biggest bases are located. The Lone Star State has been designated as “hostile” territory in the exercise. If nothing else, this is a fair assessment of the state’s prevailing attitude towards virtually anything linked with the Obama administration, or anything perceived as an encroachment on Texan independence.
On Saturday in San Antonio, protesters gathered outside the Alamo to decry its new designation as a Unesco World Heritage site, on the less-than-rational basis that this honour could be the prelude to a United Nations takeover of Texas’ most sacred landmark.
Concern has reached into the highest echelons of state politics. In April, Republican governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas state guard to “monitor” Jade Helm, in order “to address concerns of Texas citizens and to ensure that Texas communities remain safe, secure and informed about military procedures occurring in their vicinity”.
In May, Ted Cruz, the US senator and Republican presidential candidate from Texas, told Bloomberg he had no reason to doubt the Pentagon’s assurances about the exercise, but added that suspicion was a natural consequence of the federal government’s generally untrustworthy behaviour.
In this hysterical climate – and given a lack of detail from the army – outlandish claims have proliferated. Weeks after production of Texas’ favourite ice cream, Blue Bell, was halted by a listeria outbreak, internet rumours began circulating that the army was using, or will use, the company’s refrigerated trucks to transport dead bodies.
Conspiracy theorists have also focused on supposed underground tunnel systems leading to Canada and Mexico and whether the army is turning abandoned Walmart stores into concentration camps.
One of the Jade Helm hubs is expected to be the small town of Bastrop, near Austin, where officials spent hours at a meeting in April trying to assuage the worries of residents. Such fears ranged from understandable concern about traffic and disruption to daily life, to whether the military has more sinister motives for embedding itself in the pine-forested surrounds of what locals like to call the Most Historic Small Town in Texas.
Johnston, a retired firefighter and police officer in Arizona who now lives in the Texas hill country, spoke in measured, calm tones and said he and his colleagues were focused on basic transparency, not outrageous conspiracy.
“We are not far-wing, ‘Oh God, arm ourselves, get in camouflage, block the streets,’” he said. “We’re doing more of a neighbourhood watch kind of thing.
“We are going to find a central location and set up an area and just cruise the streets, drive up and down the highway through Bastrop … most of us are legal concealed-carry folks, but we’re not going to be running up and down the street with automatic rifles.”
“There’s a lot of folks out there that are putting on their tinfoil hats and waiting for the end of the world to come,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that theory … as far as martial law would go, the area you would pick would be more of a suburban area, downtown Austin, downtown Houston. You wouldn’t schedule an event like that to take place in a tiny area like Bastrop.”
Johnston said more 350 people in Texas had offered to help, including 20 to 25 in Bastrop, one of whom has a pilot’s license. Two have ham radio licenses. Counter Jade Helm participants will stay in touch using a communications app on their mobile phones.
If something mysterious is afoot, Johnston, said, he wants to get to the bottom of it.
“Two and two doesn’t add up,” he said.