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The Wild New World Of Training; It's Far Less Predictable, And More Effective, Than Vieques
By William H. McMichael; Times staff writer
March 22, 2004
ABOARD THE CARRIER JOHN F. KENNEDY -- A couple of years ago, the training area that surrounded and included the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, seemed like some sort of hallowed ground -- a cornerstone of the Navy's training strategy that was critical to success.
Suddenly, it's a distant memory. Now, everyone's raving about the Training Resource Strategy, implemented last year by Fleet Forces Command to replace the pre-deployment training East Coast carrier strike groups must successfully complete before deployment.
"To be able to do multiwarfare training simultaneously, all the way from maritime interdiction operations to counterterrorist operations, to ASW, air warfare, strike warfare, information operations, all at once, I'm real pleased," Rear Adm. Donald Bullard, commander of the Mayport, Fla.-based John F. Kennedy Carrier Strike Group, said while aboard his flagship underway in the Gulf of Mexico.
The variety reflects the myriad threats a Navy carrier group can face in the less-predictable post-Cold War world, officials said.
"We do not know today the exact scenario this CSG is going to be presented with when they deploy," Rear Adm. Richard Gallagher said of Carrier Group 4, which is conducting the training and evaluation of the strike group. "We have found that we need to be more flexible, and we need to be more responsive to threats that may not be defined today, but could be presented to us in the very near future. So we look at the available range of problems and tasking they could receive. And these multiple scenarios are intended to build that skill set that allows them to operate in any of the fleet commanders' areas."
Bullard walked a visitor through the sequence of training sites and events the Kennedy group has visited and practiced since the beginning of the year to earn a "surge-ready" status when the Comprehensive Training Unit exercise is complete March 16:
**Shooting live surface-to-air missiles against drones on the instrumented missile range at Wallops Island, Va.
**Close-air support training with the Marines in North Carolina, including live-firing from the sea into land-based ranges.
**Search-and-rescue work with Army Special Forces at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.
**Airstrikes on Air Force ranges in Florida.
**Operating around Key West, Fla., and its high density of small boat traffic -- "almost like the Straits of Hormuz," Bullard said.
**Launching long-range airstrike missions -- some involving live bombs -- while in the Key West area, replicating, to some extent, the extended missions fliers endure when launching from the North Arabian Sea into Afghanistan.
**Operating amid the heavy shipping and oil rigs often encountered in the northern Gulf of Mexico, replicating what the Navy encounters in the Indian Ocean and northern Persian Gulf.
**Shooting live ordnance at Eglin Air Force Base and working with that base's electronic warfare range.
**Mine-warfare operations in coordination with Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, Fla. "That's part of our training out here -- to ensure we can operate in all environments," Bullard said.
The Training Resource Strategy has other advantages. The bodies of water provide more challenge for sonar operators searching for "enemy" submarines, Bullard said. Off the East Coast, the Atlantic has characteristics similar to northern Europe and the Mediterranean, while the Gulf of Mexico's waters, akin to water found in some areas of the Pacific, make finding submarines with passive acoustics "extremely difficult," he said.
That's an exercise of capabilities, Bullard said, "that I could never do in Vieques."
The variety of ranges in the TRS gives fliers more options. At Vieques, "There was no doubt in your mind where you were going each time," said Capt. Mark Guadagnini, commander of Carrier Air Wing 17. At the U.S.-based range complexes, he said, "Now we're dealing in urban settings that make it more complex, and much more realistic. Things in these training ranges look like things in cities. And so the aircrew has to recognize the difference. And we don't really fight much, nor will we fight much in the future, in open areas."
"The fact that we've got different target sets available is a dramatically good improvement," said Gallagher, a veteran F-14 and F/A-18 pilot and former commander of the Navy's Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Fallon, Nev. "Because when you're learning and practicing the art and science of strike warfare from the air, you want to present the aircrew with targets that are not always the same, that are in different locations, that are hard to find, that change."
"The only place the guys got this before was Fallon," Guadagnini said. While West Coast fliers can visit more frequently, he said, it costs too much to send East Coast squadrons to Nevada more than once annually. "I think the training's much better between now and 18 months ago, when we did CompTuEx in Vieques," Guadagnini said. "Our aircrews are getting more out of it."
The TRS is an especially new world for East Coast surface warships, which could fire live 5-inch rounds into the calibrated Vieques range. "We're still adjusting to not having Vieques," said Commodore Tony Kurta of Destroyer Squadron 24. While four of his six ships qualified last year at Cape Wrath, Scotland, while in Europe on a NATO training exercise, East Coast ships now have gone largely to qualifying by shooting at simulated targets at sea using the Integrated Maritime Portable Acoustic Scoring and Simulator system, or IMPASS, he said.
But overall, Kurta said, "I think we gain a lot with what we're doing now." He called the new strategy "much more robust training." For example, he said, "We are so much closer to our submarine bases that we get much more interaction with the submarines than we would down in the old Puerto Rican operating area. Every now and then you would get one, if you were lucky and the time was right. But here, off the East Coast, it's much easier, and bringing them here in the Gulf of Mexico as well.
"For us, it's enhanced training in every respect."
The CompTuEx featured more real-world scenarios, including frequent practice defending against perhaps the Navy's greatest asymmetrical fear: a small-boat attack. On March 10, the U.S. Customs Service launched eight cigarette boats at the group -- termed a "swarmex" -- to prompt a defensive response, Bullard said.
The group also conducted extensive MIO training, boarding ships staffed by contracted mariners who play roles ranging from cooperative to hiding documents or resisting. A legal detachment on JFK ensures the proper legal criteria are met for the searches.
Shorter exercise, better liberty
When Atlantic Fleet carrier groups trained in recent years at Vieques, they were gone at least six weeks. Kennedy's CompTuEx began Feb. 21 and was scheduled to end March 16. If JFK passes muster with Gallagher and 2nd Fleet, it'll be declared surge-ready and will remain in that window for about 15 months. Sailors said the shorter CompTuEx has made a difference in the pace of their work.
"Seems like the demands are up," said Electronics Technician 3rd Class (SW/AW) Tom Klinnert, who works with high-frequency datalink systems aboard Kennedy. "Everything's more compressed. It makes for longer days, longer hours. But that's to be expected."
And making a port call in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was a welcome break, sailors said. "Last time, we took two weeks longer. And no port calls," said Fire Controlman 2nd Class (SW) Tim Fowler, who works on the SPS-48E air search radar. "This one's a lot better." Kennedy was scheduled to make an additional port call, in Pensacola, Fla., on March 17.
Fowler took part in the JFK's last CompTuEx, after emergency repairs conducted in the winter of 2001-02. Thanks to extensive work done on the aging ship during its overhaul last year in Mayport, Fla., he said, this CompTuEx has "been more focused on getting the exercise done, rather than on problems with the ship."