Training Commanders Tout Gulf Coast Ranges

By Sandra I. Erwin

The uncertainty surrounding the availability of live-fire training and testing ranges has fueled a lobbying effort to convince the military services that they should take advantage of the large span of water, land and airspace along the Florida Panhandle and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The growing needs for joint training makes the Gulf range complex a valuable resource, which currently is underused, said range officials.

The commanders of the Air Force Air Armaments Center, the Naval Surface Warfare Center and the Army Aviation and Missile Command recently put together a so-called “Joint Gulf Range Complex Strategic Plan,” which explains why they view the area as an ideal venue for modern military training.

The Joint Gulf Coast Ranges initiative started three years ago, to “tie together the assets of the services on the Gulf Coast,” said Donald F. Roswell, program engineer at the 46th Test Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The Army, Navy and Air Force all are having difficulties getting enough live-fire training, as a result of “encroachment,” said Roswell during a conference on testing and training, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association. Encroachment is a term used frequently by Defense Department officials to describe restrictive measures that limit the scope of military live-fire training.

Encroachment refers to, for example, environmental regulations, airspace restrictions, radio-frequency spectrum, urban growth and airborne noise, said Michael Parmentier, director of defense readiness and training policy.

A case in point is the Navy’s live-fire target range on Vieques Island, in Puerto Rico. The local population wants the range closed, arguing that firing exercises pose safety risks to the residents and cause harm to the environment. The Bush administration agreed to cease training operations at Vieques by 2003.

The Marine Corps could perform amphibious landings on the Gulf Coast ranges, like they do at Vieques, even though it would be on a “very limited basis,” with no live fire, said Roswell. “We have conducted live-fire operations, across barrier islands. We can fire south, into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Gulf Coast ranges include the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the Navy’s Coastal Systems Station, Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases and the Army’s Fort Rucker.

“We are trying to make our capability for testing and training more attractive to the services,” said Robert Arnold, 46th Test Wing technical director.

Range engineers are in the process of developing an over-water target area, to be able to score weapon impacts in the Gulf, Roswell said. “We can’t live fire across the land into the range, [but] we can score impact angles for testing and training. ... We are trying to come up with an arrangement of towers and platforms in the Gulf, perhaps a floating island.”

Scoring weapons is a method used for testing the accuracy of munitions. Currently, the Navy scores weapons at Vieques, but Roswell believes that, in the future, the same could be done in the Gulf.

“We have very accurate cameras on the range that we can score weapon impacts down to a meter,” he said.

George C. Betz Jr., U.S. Navy liaison at the 46th Test Wing, explained that the advent of standoff weapons has altered testing and training requirements significantly. “The safety footprint has changed over time,” he said. “In the 50s it was the size of a quarter. In the 60s, with the standoff of the weapons growing, the safety footprint keeps getting larger.” The upshot is the need to continually move offshore to do the scoring.

Fifty years ago, explained Arnold, “we could drop iron bombs, measure wind effects.” Now, “once we start adding guidance systems and propulsion, we have footprints that are far greater than the land range.”

In the 1980s, he said, “we started dealing with environmental regulations and encroachment.” These restrictions “could be show stoppers in the future.”

Occasionally, there are unexpected cases of encroachment, said Arnold. In the early 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted to put up aerostat balloons on the edge of the Eglin Reservation. The balloons intruded into the range’s air space. “We sent a letter signed by general and flag officers, so the aerostats went away.”

Some officials fear that pressures to close or curtail live-fire ranges increasingly will grow. “Vieques is the first domino in a chain of dominoes,” said David Velez, technical director at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

“I fear for the future,” he said at the conference.

A study by the Center for Naval Analyses proposed alternative training sites to Vieques, but did not mention the Gulf Ranges. It said that Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, could accommodate 75 percent of the training currently being conducted at Vieques. The remaining 25 percent, said the study, could be accomplished at Fort Bragg and other nearby ranges in North Carolina.—

Topics: Live Fire Testing, Training, Test and Evaluation

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