An Air Force announcement that it will begin awarding contracts for the construction of the Electronic Combat Test and Training in Utah's west desert in six months could strain relations between the military and some residents.

The announcement suggests that the month of public hearings on the project scheduled for early summer are merely for show, intended to appease the public, not assess it's sentiments.In fact, Air Force Captain Garrett Mason's announcement to the Deseret News Washington Bureau implies that the Air Force has already decided to go ahead with the $1 billion electronic battlefield, regardless of how Utahns feel, or what an environmental impact statement shows.

That's not an impression the Air Force can afford to create. Utahns have been victimized brutally and frequently in the name of "national security."

For over 30 years, many miners died from lung cancer because the federal government made a "national security" decision not to tell Utahns that the dust in Marysvale uranium mines was deadly.

Ranchers in southern Utah have lost thousands of sheep and cattle to the effects of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada, an act the federal government still refuses to accept responsibility for. Worse, scores of Utahns have died from cancer attributed to the Nevada tests.

Utah fought a grindingly-hard battle to keep the federal government from dumping MX missiles in the west desert. Despite the military's show of friendship and candor then, it soon became clear that the military intended to put those missiles in the west desert regardless of local sentiments.

Because of those incidents, many Utahns don't trust the federal government, particularly the military.

It behooves the military to be sensitive to such distrust and meet it with honesty and openness. When the Air Force announces in November that it "can't turn a shovel of dirt" on the electronic battlefield until a "record of decision" is filed in October, 1989, people wanted to believe that.

But recent disclosures that the military is already securing land-use permits to build the battlefield and will award contracts for the battlefield in the midst of public hearings on the project stirs old distrust.

Any project proposed for the west desert must be thoroughly studied. Utahns have the right to have the impact of that project presented accurately and fully and to have their opinion about the use of Utah land heard and weighed.

All of this is not to say that the electronic battlefield project is a bad idea or that Utahns will oppose it. That is not the case. It could very well be a good thing for Utah and citizens may support it wholeheartedly.

But let's not act as if that opinion doesn't count or that such support can be taken for granted and public hearings are a mere formality.