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Associated Press Newswires

Marines Have More Room To Roam In Panhandle Exercise

Associated Press Writer

December 11, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - Marines will have much more room to roam when their boots hit the sand Friday for their first exercise at Eglin Air Force Base, a replacement for Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.

Eglin is the nation's largest air base covering 724 square miles, or two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. Its western boundary is about 15 miles east of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

The Marines for decades had trained on a Navy bombing range of about 23 square miles on the eastern end of Vieques. In May, it was turned over to the Department of Interior for a wildlife refuge after a series of protests triggered when errant bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999.

Eglin will give the Marines a better opportunity to do both parts of "fire and maneuver" training, said Capt. Eric Dent, a spokesman for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"It will afford maneuver," Dent said. "We did the fire piece at Vieques."

About 1,600 troops, tanks, Humvees and other vehicles will do the maneuvering.

Some Marines will fly in on helicopters from amphibious assault ships in the Gulf of Mexico. Most, however, will be ferried to Eglin's beaches on Santa Rosa Island by landing craft, amphibious assault vehicles and hovercraft, known as Landing Craft Air Cushioned, or LCACs.

Wheeled vehicles then will convoy over a bridge and roads to the mainland part of the base.

The LCACs will continue across the island and Santa Rosa Sound to the Wynnhaven Beach community where they will disgorge tanks and other heavy equipment. Traffic on U.S. 98 will be stopped for up to 30 minutes at a time to let the vehicles cross the busy highway into Eglin's interior.

LCACs also will land artillery in smaller numbers on Choctawhatchee Bay. The process will be reversed when the exercise ends Wednesday.

Live fire from rifles to tanks and aircraft will be a key component, but it will not be permitted on the beach to prevent damage to dunes, plants and wildlife.

"Our amphibious landing is more of an amphibious off-load," Dent said.

That may not square with the Marines' World War II image of hitting the beaches, but it is more realistic in terms of modern combat.

"The defended beach line is a thing of the past, but you never know," Dent said. "We may have to kick in the door."

The Marines, however, still get such training at Camp Lajeune.

The assault ships USS Wasp, USS Shreveport and USS Whidbey Island are being accompanied by two cruisers, the USS Leyte Gulf and USS Yorktown, the destroyer USS McFaul and the submarine USS Connecticut. The vessels are based at Norfolk, Va., Pacagoula, Miss.; Little Creek, Va., and Groton, Conn.

The cruisers and destroyer will provide artillery support as they did at Vieques, but their shells will never hit land. A newly developed virtual targeting system will let them fire at simulated land targets in the gulf.

Navy, Marine and Air Force planes also are participating. They include MC-130 transports from Eglin, AC-130 gunships from adjacent Hurlburt Field, Navy F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat fighters from Norfolk, Hornets from Beaufort Marine Air Station, S.C. and AV-8B Harrier jump jets and helicopters from the Wasp.

Aircraft carrier battle groups that once used Vieques already have trained at Eglin five times since 1999. The USS John F. Kennedy, based at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, is to lead the next battle group exercise in early 2004.

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