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Pensacola News Journal

Eglin Crucial To Vieques Replacement

Vieques Still Best For Navy Training

Eglin Crucial To Vieques Replacement

Panhandle base could play major role for Navy

By Larry Wheeler

February 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Pensacola News Journal. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - Eglin Air Force Base may not be the only site to replace Vieques , Puerto Rico , for weapons training and military exercises, but the sprawling Northwest Florida base might handle more of the crucial exercises.

A study by the Center for Naval Analyses concludes there isn't a single site available to the Navy that can accommodate all aspects of the exercises, which are required of carrier battle groups before they deploy overseas.

Instead, a combination of sites, including the 724-square-mile Eglin reservation, probably will be used by carrier battle groups and air wings after 2003, when the United States is scheduled to stop using Vieques .

The prospect has local leaders eagerly anticipating yet another mission for the region that already has one of the highest concentrations of military installations in the country.

``This is a heavily military community,'' said Pat Hollarn, chairman of the Crestview Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. ``With very few exceptions, the community is completely behind all our bases.''

Pensacola officials anxiously await word from the Navy because some of the ships participating in the extended exercises make port calls at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

But pieces of the training, conducted at Vieques the past 60 years, can be achieved in other ways.

The Virginia Capes operating area can support the widest variety of Navy training needs. The area includes Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Dare County, N.C. and Cherry Point, N.C. ranges; and Fort Bragg, N.C. But the complex can't support end-to-end tactical air strikes with live ordnance.

Eglin is the best site for tactical and live ordnance air strike exercises but can't accommodate large amphibious group exercises, Marine expeditionary unit landings or ship-to-shore gunnery exercises.

``It is going to be a hybrid, a combination of assets we have on the East Coast and Eglin,'' said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information.

The Eglin reservation has shown it can host large, complex Naval operations while still supporting routine operations of its year-round tenants, which include squadrons of fighter jets and special operations forces that fly AC-130 transport planes and CH-53 helicopters.

Two years ago, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its battle group conducted a two-week exercise in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The 18 warships, three submarines and 65 aircraft generated 1,300 sorties and dropped about 400 bombs, 300 of them live, on Eglin's test range, said Col. Kevin Burns, 46th Test Wing vice commander.

``That was a very unusual level of activity,'' Burns said. ``The Navy dropped more live bombs during that exercise than the rest of us drop all year long.''

A study group of retired generals and admirals is working to conclude an analysis of training alternatives to Vieques and is expected to issue its report this spring.

``I'm sure that panel has figured out by now there is no real one place they can go to replace Vieques ,'' Burns said.

The final decision will be made by Navy Secretary Gordon England.

The decision promises economic stimulation for local economies.

Pensacola officials estimate each sailor who steps off the ship will spend an estimated $75 per day in the community.

Vann Goodloe, vice president of Armed Services at the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce, said his group has not met with or lobbied Navy officials involved in identifying Vieques training alternatives.

`` Vieques is still the best place. But, if for some reason Vieques is not going to be accessible, we feel there are some real advantages to conducting that training here,'' Goodloe said.

What role Eglin reservation and nearby military installations play remains to be seen.

``We've found Eglin to be very useful in getting a carrier and its air wing working together as a fighting team,'' said Cmdr. John Kirby, spokesman for the 2nd Fleet. ``That involves lots of sorties, air missions and bombing. A range like Eglin is very valuable for that specific type of training.''


Vieques Still Best For Navy Training

February 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Pensacola News Journal. All Rights Reserved.

The search for alternatives to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a training site for the Navy always returns to the same point: There is no adequate replacement for Vieques .

President Bush should reverse his pre-September 11 decision to end Navy training on the island.

The world is an increasingly dangerous place. The United States' military forces - headed for a Cold War-type expansion - must have adequate training ranges. There are two main reasons:

* Today's sophisticated weapons require continuous training. Crews on Navy ships headed for overseas deployment must have realistic live-fire training exercises before they go.

* Military conflict today leaves increasingly little time for mobilization and training. The Afghanistan conflict is a perfect example. The armed forces have to be ready to leave today, and enter the battlefield - fighting - tomorrow.

While the economic boost Northwest Florida wold get from enhanced training activity at Eglin Air Force Base would be a plus, it is part of a solution that does not satisfactorily offset the Navy's loss of Vieques .

As noted by the most recent study by the Center for Naval Analyses, there is no one training site that can replace Vieques . That means the Navy can't go to one place and exercise the full range of training needed to bring a carrier battle group to combat readiness. It likely means dividing training between Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast sites.

Bush made the decision to end training at Vieques in a very different world - before September 11. It was heavily influenced not by defense advisers, but by political advisor Karl Rove. He was worried about the Hispanic vote for a president coming off an election in which he lost the popular vote and barely took Florida, where Hispanics in South Florida are a potent force.

But the terrorist attack changed everything:

  • This nation is at war with terrorists, and might soon be at war with established nations such as Iraq, North Korea and Iran.
  • The president, particularly in defense matters, is operating from a position of political strength. Voters will support almost anything for the military.
  • The massive expansion of the defense budget means training must expand, too.

There is opposition to reversing the decision on Vieques . But it is a step needed to ensure the United States Navy gets the best training available.


In order for the military to get the best possible training, Vieques must be reconsidered.

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