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First Carrier Group Heading For Gulf Under New Navy Training Plan…Live-Fire Exercises Test Florida Coast As A Replacement For Vieques Range

First Carrier Group Heading For Gulf Under New Navy Training Plan


February 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved.

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - An aircraft carrier strike group will exercise in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time next week as part of a plan for replacing a closed Navy bombing and gunnery range in Puerto Rico with facilities in the southeastern United States.

The eight-vessel strike group led by the carrier USS John F. Kennedy, based at Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville, began the exercise Saturday in the Atlantic Ocean and will enter the gulf March 6 for 10 more days of simulated and live-fire training.

"This is the first time under our new Training Resource Strategy that we've used the Gulf of Mexico operation as you are going to see it unfold in March," Rear Adm. Richard K. Gallagher said here Thursday.

"When they're done with this exercise later in March they will be at a point what we're now calling surge-ready," said Gallagher, commander of Carrier Group 4, based in Norfolk, Va.

The strike group, however, has received no notice that it may be needed for a U.S. response to the rebellion that has erupted in Haiti, said Gallagher, who is overseeing the exercise.

He said the ships are to make port calls Tuesday through next Friday at various points on the East Coast and at Tampa on the Gulf Coast. The Kennedy is scheduled to drop anchor off Port Everglades.

The training strategy, using ranges and bases in Florida, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, was developed to replace the facilities on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island. They were closed last year following a series of protests that began after a civilian security guard was killed and others injured by errant bombs in 1999.

Strike groups led by the carriers USS Enterprise and USS George Washington conducted the first exercises under the replacement plan in October and December but their ships operated only in the Atlantic.

A Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary strike group conducted an exercise in the gulf and at nearby Eglin Air Force Base in December but it did not include an aircraft carrier.

Gallagher surveyed Eglin, which sprawls across 724 square miles of the Florida Panhandle, by helicopter before speaking with reporters at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Major portions of the exercise will be conducted on Eglin's land and gulf ranges while Carrier Air Wing 8 will send 18 jets from Oceana Naval Air Station, Va., to the Pensacola base.

They will join contractor-flown foreign made jets and F-15 Eagle fighters from Eglin, three warships and one or two submarines, all under Gallagher's command, to serve as part of a hostile Orange group that will oppose the Kennedy's Blue force.

Tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and other targets, some of them realistic mock-ups, are being set up at Eglin and the Pensacola base where only simulated attacks will take place.

Live munitions, however, will be used at Eglin, which hosted exercises involving the Washington and Enterprise in 2000 and 2001 before the new training plan was adopted.

Since then, the Navy has added other ranges and upgraded them to provide more realistic training. Now in use are ranges at Pinecastle in the Ocala National Forest, Avon Park in central Florida, Townsend, Ga.; Piney Island, N.C., and Dare County, N.C.

A Site With "Real Potential": Training At Eglin Air Force Base ; Live-Fire Exercises Test Florida Coast As A Replacement For Vieques Range


The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

December 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

FORT WALTON BEACH, FLA. -- It may have been the first military assault in U.S. history where Marines got the red carpet treatment - literally.

The carpet, a ribbon of fibrous material 14 feet wide, was stretched across U.S. Highway 98 to protect its surface from tanks and other tracked vehicles during this week's landmark exercise on the Florida Panhandle.

Although turned upside down so its white, rubber underside could better cushion the rubber pads on the amphibious track vehicles, the carpet's red color seemed emblematic of the warm reception participants in the exercise received from the region's civilian and military communities.

The color choice, however, was accidental.

"We didn't pick it on purpose; the carpet just happened to be that color," insisted Marine Corps Lt. Col. Benjamin R. Braden, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Unit's Service Support Group, as he orchestrated the movement of heavy tracked amphibious vehicles across the highway.

A dozen ships and aircraft and upwards of 7,000 Marines and sailors from the Hampton Roads-based Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group are in the midst of a 10-day training stint on the practice ranges at Eglin Air Force Base.

The highway crossing drew considerable interest from local residents. Locals, including children who ditched school, lined a grassy knoll to watch maneuvers. Truckers pulled on their air horns, signaling support to the troops.

Humvees, trucks and howitzers also cruised beneath bridges on the backs of Virginia Beach-based Navy landing craft, or rolled through town in convoys on their way to the practice bombing ranges as the maneuvers gathered steam throughout the weekend.

"They've done a good job protecting the beaches," Robert Fultyn, a former naval officer, said from his Wynnhaven Beach home, just two doors from one landing site. "I find it interesting the way they paved the beach."

Foot-square concrete blocks lined the water's edge; heavy sod, together with a gravel base for a staging area, further protected the access to the highway.

Fultyn's neighbors staged a landing party of their own, flying a dozen small American flags from an adjacent pier while drinking mimosas from red plastic cups as the Marines floated by.

The landing activities stopped traffic at times on the tourist- fed highway, where 22,000 vehicles a day pass. But delays were brief - in just five minutes, the Marines could get the carpet down, drive 13 amtracks across and roll the carpet back up.

The maneuvers are the largest amphibious exercise at Eglin, which sprawls across 724 square miles in three counties. The base is going to be of increasing value to the Navy and Marines, who in May stopped training on Vieques, a Puerto Rican island 1,000 miles to the southeast that had been used for more than 50 years.

The exercise is one of the first times the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Army have been able to combine tactics under live-fire conditions. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee was impressed.

"This is my first visit to Eglin and there is real potential down here," he said while watching Marines come ashore on Santa Rosa Island, a barrier on the Gulf of Mexico that protects the mainland. "The Marines are quite excited about the training here. They are excited about the support we are receiving from the local community."

Hagee said he is hesitant to compare the training at Eglin with that the Marines left in Vieques. Training has shifted to a number of other areas on the Atlantic seaboard since May, he said. Whether the Marines return to Eglin depends on a review of this month's activities, he said.

Because Eglin is a testing facility, mainly for munitions, most regular work has had to stop to accommodate the exercises, officials have said.

"They are looking at how they can modify their procedures to allow our training," Hagee said. "We are looking for more joint training, whether it is on an Army base, Air Force, Marine or Navy base, and we are all going to have to modify our procedures a bit.

"I don't see any major obstacles to that."

Although Hagee can't say if the Marines will return, John Keith, executive director of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, made it clear he wants them back.

"Contrary to what he is saying, which is that they want to mix it up and go to a lot of other places, our position is we want every one of them to be here," Keith said.

A military impact study on Florida, released Thursday as the exercise began, showed that the state reaped $44 billion in direct and indirect military spending last year - 9.8 percent of its gross state product. For West Florida, that accounted for up to 33 percent of its gross state product, Keith said, making it the No. 1 contributor to the regional economy.

With a new round of base closings looming in 2005, added uses for Eglin ranges will not go unnoticed, Keith said.

Eglin owns a 10-mile stretch of the pristine Santa Rosa Island, but Keith said the community has no desire to wrestle away the potentially valuable government-owned property for commercial development.

"That would be like saying, 'Do you ever wish you could eat one of these golden eggs that the goose laid,'?" he said. "It never crossed our minds."

Landing the Marines at this new training area is important to his group's success, said Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"We recognize the sacrifices and the little bit of congestion we bring to the local area," he said. "We will work hard to minimize that, but we will leave combat ready."

The 22nd MEU is scheduled to deploy overseas early next year, perhaps to Iraq, aboard a redesigned seven-ship Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group. Navy Capt. Steven C. Joachin, commander of the Wasp strike group, said the new design "will give us a lot more capability and doubles the number of strike groups that can be projected from the U.S."

One of the key benefits of Eglin, according to the Marines, is the fresh landscape. At Camp Lejeune's Onslow Beach in North Carolina, where the Marines have trained for years, there's little the troops don't know about the terrain, said Sgt. Ryan West, 26, who leads an infantry unit of 12 Marines.

"We go out there and run around and pretend a lot, especially about there being opposing forces in front of us," West said. "But it's mostly pretend."

The Marines are so accustomed to Camp Lejeune, that they don't even use a compass. At Eglin, West will use his compass to negotiate through parts of three counties and 400,000 acres of unfamiliar woodlands. And there will be significant opposing forces, dropped behind the scenes earlier in the week.

"Any time we train in a different environment, in a different landscape, it's exciting," said Cpl. Robert Sturkia, 21, as he packed his gear aboard the Wasp before going ashore last week.

He'll sleep under the stars, in a one-man tent, atop a rubber mat and sleeping bag.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Sturkia said.

Expecting the Florida Panhandle to be warmer than the woodlands of North Carolina, some Marines were disappointed as temperatures dropped to the mid-30s at night. But clear skies and 60-degree temperatures lifted spirits on Friday.

Eglin is one place 2nd Lt. Darrell F. Commander, 24, assistant platoon commander, never thought he would train as a Marine. Commander grew up just outside the base's north gate in Niceville. His father still works at Eglin and he has friends in the area.

Commander expected to spend time in more typical Marine locations, such as Camp Lejeune, Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., and Iraq - from where he just returned.

"But this is great," Commander said. "I'm anxious to show the guys around."

Caption: Graphic THE BASE The maneuvers are the largest amphibious exercise at Eglin, which sprawls across 724 square miles in three counties. The base is going to be of increasing value to the Navy and Marines, who in May stopped training on Vieques, a Puerto Rican island. THE EXERCISE A dozen ships and aircraft and upwards of 7,000 Marines and sailors from the Hampton Roads-based Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group are in the midst of a 10-day training stint on the practice ranges at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Color photo STEVE EARLEY/the virginian-PILOT A CH-46 Marine Corps helicopter flies over the hotels of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The helicopter is part of the first expeditionary strike group to train using the range at Eglin Air Force Base. Photo Marine Lt. Jeffrey Gaddy tests his communications equipment in the hangar bay of the Wasp prior to night operations. Some 7,000 Marines and sailors from the Hampton Roads-based Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group are training in the Florida Panhandle.

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