Esta página no está disponible en español.
Pensacola News Journal
Training Could Bolster Panhandle Economy, Bases
Better defense in realignment hearings, influx of cash likely
December 7, 2003
This month`s Navy and Marine exercise is the first significant training to move to the Panhandle since the Navy abandoned use of Vieques in May.
Next up: the nine-ship USS John F. Kennedy carrier strike group predeployment exercise early next year.
The Kennedy exercise will mark the sixth time such groups have used Eglin Air Force Base`s ranges since a moratorium was imposed on using live bombs on the tiny Puerto Rican island about three years ago.
The USS Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit also will be the first group of their type to train in the Gulf of Mexico under the new post-Vieques training plan, which spreads the training to a number of bases along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Both the carrier and expeditionary groups are expected to use ranges at Eglin and four other military bases throughout the state at least twice a year.
Even more training might be on the way as the Department of Defense restructures the military with an eye toward saving money and improving efficiency through joint training. For this reason, this month`s joint military exercise is critical to the future role Eglin and other area bases will play in preparing Marines and sailors for combat.
"The operation will be evaluated for cost effectiveness compared to training value before any long-term commitments or investments are made at Eglin or other bases the group is using," said Col. Bryan Salas, spokesman for U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Atlantic.
Results of the exercise likely will dictate the outcome of military and congressional discussions now under way about future training, said Bob Black, chairman of the Defense Support Initiative Committee for Okaloosa County`s Economic Development Council.
That includes whether a multimillion-dollar, military urban- warfare training center is constructed at Eglin, he said. Such a center would greatly increase the number of Marines and other combat military units training in Northwest Florida.
Meanwhile, the new missions at Eglin, Pensacola Naval Air Station and other bases throughout the state solidify their importance in preparation for the next round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, hearings scheduled for 2005, said Pam Dana, director of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development for Gov. Jeb Bush`s office.
Susan Story, president of Gulf Power Co. and chairwoman of the Governor`s Committee of the Florida BRAC Advisory Council, said the region already has a proven record for joint training.
"The Army Rangers are trained at Eglin. Pensacola Naval Air Station and Whiting Field train Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard pilots and sailors. With the introduction of the Marines, this is a really big move," she said.
For now, the expeditionary groups are committed to using Eglin`s extensive land and water ranges up to two times a year.
Also, at least twice a year, carrier strike groups are expected to train in the Gulf or use Eglin`s ranges while operating in the Atlantic, said Cmdr. David Werner, spokesman for the Navy`s Atlantic Fleet Forces in Norfolk, Va.
"That hinges on deployments and maintenance schedules. It may be less or more frequently," he said.
Werner said the Kennedy`s exercise - required annually for all carrier groups - will mirror those conducted at Eglin in the past: air-to-ground and ship-to- shore firings.
The carrier group also will use Pensacola Naval Air Station`s port and airfield operations while in the Gulf. Pensacola NAS will play host to liberty calls for some of the ships, though Werner said the Kennedy is not scheduled to make a port visit.
No port calls are scheduled for the ships that comprise the USS Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group this month, he said.
"You possess a great liberty port there and just dredged the channel deeper to get bigger ships in, but time constraints, in getting the training done between Thanksgiving and Christmas, won`t allow enough time for port calls this time," Werner said.
"The goal in the future is to send ships into Gulf Coast ports," said Capt. Bill Crow, exercise planner for the Navy`s Amphibious Group Two.
In exercises to come, group personnel likely will take liberty after training at Eglin, which would allow the sailors and Marines to visit the area.
Such visits inject thousands of dollars into the economy with sailors and Marines spending money on entertainment, shopping and eating. Dana said it is too early to predict exactly how much the post-Vieques training`s economic impact will be in Florida.
"We expect it will literally be in the millions. There have been predictions of up to $800 million over the next few years for the state, with all the new missions the Navy is going to bring to Florida including to Eglin, Pensacola and Key West," she said.
Already, the Navy has invested $40 million to improve the pier at Key West Naval Air Station and $800,000 to dredge the channel at Pensacola Naval Air Station`s Allegheny Pier to accommodate larger Navy ships.
The new Navy and Marine Corps missions could push defense spending in the state from about $44 billion to $45 billion annually over time, she said.
That money will pour into the state`s economy not only through infrastructure improvements on bases, but also through the addition of base employees to support the missions, sailors and Marines spending money, and the military buying supplies, Dana said.