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U.S. Navy Training Goes Virtual as War Games Move

October 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 REUTERS. All rights reserved. 

MIAMI (Reuters) - With a bombing range in Puerto Rico set to close, the U.S. Navy will shift its war games into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean using new simulators that can make targets far out at sea look like downtown Baghdad, according to a top U.S. Navy official.

Training exercises conducted for decades off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques will be staged instead from military bases on the southeastern U.S. coast, especially Florida, Adm. Robert Natter, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said late Monday.

``It's doing training in a different way,'' Natter said in a telephone interview while visiting Florida. ``Some of what we could do there we quite frankly could do better here.''

For 50 years, the Navy's aircraft carrier battle groups have conducted war games off Vieques, shelling part of the island from ships and planes before deploying overseas.

Calls to leave Puerto Rico, a Caribbean U.S. territory, erupted after a civilian security guard was killed in a botched bombing run in 1999. Protesters repeatedly have sneaked onto the range to disrupt the training, alleging the bombing damages the environment and endangers the health of the island's 9,000 residents -- charges that the Navy denies.

President Bush has said the Navy will leave Vieques by May but first it must certify to Congress that it has found somewhere else as good or better to train.

Natter said his training plan generally would involve two battle group exercises a year with six to eight cruisers and destroyers, a couple of submarines and support ships, and about 2,000 sailors and Marines participating in each.

Drills would last six to eight weeks and would take place in the Gulf of Mexico from November to June, outside the hurricane season, he said.

``We could have as high as three in any given year but chances are the third one would be restricted to the Atlantic because of the hurricane issue,'' Natter said.


Most bombing would take place far out at sea, using a new system that lets ships simulate the terrain of any area -- ``downtown Baghdad, anyplace you have overhead photography,''Natter said.

``They can simulate an aircraft overflying that location and give you an actual picture of the target and that can tell the gun crews where to place their rounds,'' he said.

The image is superimposed over targets placed far away from populated areas or sensitive marine habitats. Sonor buoys around the targets measure where the rounds fall and relay the information back to the ships and planes, letting the crews know if they hit their mark, Natter said.

The Virtual At-Sea Training systems were created by the Navy, using computer, radar and global-positioning technology, Natter said. The Navy will use them in an exercise run from Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle in November.

The system was in the works already but the prospect of losing Vieques gave it a boost, Natter said.

``This, we think, is very good technology,'' he said. ``It's the smart thing to do and the cost-effective thing to do.''

The new plan also calls for increased use of existing bases and aerial bombing ranges, especially during joint training with the Air Force and Army.

Among those targeted are the Cherry Point bombing range and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the Avon Park and Pinecastle ranges in Florida and Florida's Eglin Air Force Base, Tyndall Air Force Base, Pensacola Naval Air Station, Key West Naval Air Station and a Navy research station in Panama City, Florida, Natter said.

``Most people wouldn't even know they (the exercises) were happening,'' Natter said. ``It's not going to happen very frequently, it's not happening in one location.''

Vieques was long favored precisely because it provided ``one-stop shopping'' for sea, air and land training. That has become less important as the military increasingly relies on long-range missiles, Natter said.

``We're not able to train with those on shore anyway because of the potential danger should one go astray,'' he said.

Familiarity with the Vieques range also was a problem.

``If you are a gunner or a pilot having to go in and train against the same target year after year, you get pretty accustomed to what it's all about and it doesn't become such a great challenge to you,'' he said.different look and train our crews more like they're going to have to fight.''

So far, communities where the training will take place have been receptive to the prospect of additional ships in port and additional military spending, especially with another round of military base closings set for 2005, Natter said.

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