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The Beginning Of A New Era For The Military And Northwest Florida…Technology Allows Land Bombing Tests To Be Done At Sea

The Beginning Of A New Era For The Military And Northwest Florida: Marines, Navy Invade Eglin

Expeditionary drills first for area

Kimberly Blair

December 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Pensacola News Journal. All rights reserved.

Marine Armored Amphibious Vehicles emerge from the surf to land at Blue Beach on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 6, 2001. Since training at Vieques stopped, the military is using several U.S. bases, including Eglin Air Force Base, to train for deployment.

Monday marks the beginning of a new era for the military and Northwest Florida.

More than 7,400 sailors and Marines are poised aboard 15 Navy vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, ready to begin a 10-day, joint training exercise to prepare them for deployment.

Hovercraft transports brimming with tanks, trucks, assault vehicles, an array of weapons and hundreds of armed Marines will launch from three amphibious assault ships operating about three miles out in the Gulf.

The transports will rumble over Santa Rosa Island and skim across Santa Rosa Sound between Navarre and Fort Walton Beach.

Marines will hit the shore at Wynnhaven Beach and assemble convoys before tracking across U.S. 98, where they will disappear into the thick woods of the Eglin Air Force Base reservation.

At the same time, Marine Harrier jets will screech overhead while Super Stallion and Sea Knight helicopters insert more troops into staging areas inland. Farther east, a smaller contingent of Marines will head to Hammock Point by boat before crossing State Road 20 into the reservation.

Don`t expect to see guns blazing as the Marine expeditionary unit swarms onshore for its first training exercise in the Panhandle.

"This is not going to be done with shock and speed. It will be done in a very safe and orderly fashion," said Lt. Col. Bryan Salas, spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic in Norfolk, Va.

Eddie Phillips, Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce president, said the community is excited about the prospect of witnessing the exercise.

So far, no one has complained about the noise and traffic woes that will come with it.

"We had a chance to go to Camp Lejeune (N.C.) to see a similar exercise, and the public has nothing to fear," said Phillips, who joined a number of civic leaders from Northwest Florida to preview the exercise earlier this year.

The exercise, which involves the USS Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and lasts until Dec. 17, should be exciting for those not accustomed to seeing an armada of Navy ships and armed Marines conducting such a huge enterprise.

Expeditionary units are expected to invade the base twice a year, adding to Eglin`s growing role of being host to joint military missions. This bodes well for Eglin`s position in the next round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, hearings coming up in 2005, state and local officials have said.

Eglin has a long history of sharing its resources with other services, said base spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Fanto.

"We also have the U.S. Army Ranger school here and the Navy`s explosive ordnance school, as well as other joint activities," he said.

It`s the first time Navy and Marine expeditionary forces have trained in the eastern United States under a new post-Vieques plan, said Salas.

For nearly 60 years, such exercises were conducted on Vieques, a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Navy and Marines used Vieques for pre-deployment bombing as well as gunnery and tactics practice.

The Navy abandoned training there in May after an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard during testing in 1999, prompting vehement protests by island residents.

So the Navy plotted a new course that shifted training to Eglin and more than a dozen other bases along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

In preparation for that move, the Navy`s Norfolk-based Atlantic Fleet began sending aircraft carrier battle groups - now dubbed carrier strike groups - to Eglin for live-fire training.

Five carrier groups have trained in the Gulf since 1999.

Carrier strike groups now are scheduled to use Eglin`s ranges two times a year.

Early next year, the USS John F. Kennedy carrier group, with eight support vessels and 8,000 sailors, will train in the Gulf. During those exercises, Eglin will support aerial operations such as air-to-ground bombing runs.

Its role will be greatly expanded for the Marines, who will use a number of ranges and resources on the base.

Extensive training

The Marine training began five months ago at Camp Lejeune. The training at Eglin is the next- to-last phase of training before the Marines are certified to deploy for a military operation.

Meanwhile, the Navy`s expeditionary group training got under way Dec. 1 when the ships left Norfolk to pick up the Marines at Camp Lejeune. The entire group is in the Gulf, ready for an exercise, which will culminate with all the units combining their specialized training in a mock fight.

That means combining rifle attacks, mortar and artillery launches, offshore Naval gunfire and aircraft bombing runs and ground maneuvers.

"This is all geared to that Marine with the rifle attacking an objective," Salas said.

"When that Marine goes into the attack, the importance of the exercise is to test whether command can put all these different arms together to practice before they get into a real-world situation," he said.

While the Marines train onshore, the Navy will conduct a variety of surface, air and subsurface training exercises offshore, said Cmdr. David Werner, spokesman for the Navy`s Atlantic Fleet Forces in Norfolk.

Expeditionary training

Training also will include tests for targeting accuracy with a computerized virtual target system. The system allows commanders to see a land-based target on a computer screen. Fired weapons, though, will strike water ranges equipped with tracking devices to gauge accuracy.

While the Marines and Navy get critical training, the Air Force`s 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field has decided to seize an opportunity to train with them.

"We have found niches of training we can do. We`ll do a mix of everything," said Col. Ray Kill- gore, vice commander of the wing.

That probably will include training with gunships and other aircraft belonging to the wing.

New terrain

Shifting the Navy`s training to Eglin and other U.S. installations is viewed as a positive move for the Navy for a number of reasons, Werner said.

"In Vieques, we used the same hunk of real estate that we had trained on for more than 50 years. It became routine and predictable," he said. "It was convenient, but the truth is, with today`s weapons and technology we really outgrew it."

That`s unlikely to happen at Eglin anytime soon. Its 464,000 acres represent the largest military base in the United States, dwarfing the 900 acres the Navy used on Vieques.

It also has more than 100,000 square miles of water test ranges at the Navy`s disposal.

Eglin`s vastness and its numerous bombing ranges offer a great environment for weapons training not found elsewhere, said Capt. Eric Dent, spokesman for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"Eglin offers a lot in terms of size of ranges and being able to move companies around," Dent said. "The training the Marines will get on the ground will be great."

Technology Allows Land Bombing Tests To Be Done At Sea

Navy using new system in area combat exercise

From staff and wire reports

December 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Pensacola News Journal. All rights reserved.

A 10-day training exercise by the Navy and Marines will feature more than maneuvers by ships in the Gulf of Mexico and mock combat missions on Eglin Air Force Base this week.

The Navy will use a key high- tech system - its new virtual targeting system that simulates land targets at sea.

It's yet another vital facet of training involving more than 7,400 sailors and Marines aboard 15 ships preparing for an exercise that will last until Dec. 17, military officials said.

Rather than using land-based targets for bombing training, buoys equipped with sensitive microphones are set out in the target area, and the satellite- based Global Positioning System determines each buoy's exact location.

When a bomb drops in the water, its splash will be picked up by each buoy, and a laptop computer aboard the ship uses data transmitted from the buoys to instantly calculate where each munition hits. Another laptop overlays a selected land mass atop the watery target area.

The pilot and gunners are given at-sea coordinates for their simulated land targets. In real life, a spotter on the beach would radio corrections, if needed, to the ship after each hit. Researchers are developing virtual binoculars so spotters also will be able to participate in the training.

The system can be deployed by any kind of ship and the training done almost anywhere. That means saving time and money.

The satellite transmitter will allow participation and oversight from anywhere in the world.

Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the virtual targeting system initially was viewed by some with skepticism.

"We thought we might use it for about 20 percent of our training," he said.

But testing showed it could be used for up to 80 percent of live- fire training.

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