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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA
Technology May Be Key For New Navy Training; Vieques Bomb Range To Close This Spring
September 23, 2002
With its bombing and amphibious assault ranges on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques scheduled to close this spring, the Navy is looking elsewhere for areas where it can explode ordnance with minimal disruption of man and beast.
New technology may be the key to helping the Navy, as well as the other service branches, get past environmental and political hurdles that have made training with live bombs and missiles increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
The Vieques bombing range, which the Navy has used for more than 60 years, likely will close in May. Protesters claim that the island's environment, as well as its fishing and tourism industries, have been damaged by Navy and Marine Corps bombing missions.
Congress has told the Navy to come up with a plan that provides training that is as good, or better, than Vieques before it allows the Navy to leave the range. Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, said recently he is trying to do just that.
While the services are looking at various locations for future training - including existing bombing ranges in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina - they also are turning to new hardware.
Advancements in technology could create training possibilities, including one device called a Shipboard Virtual Trainer. It isportable and would let ships simulate the terrain of any city, including its elevation, the size and locations of buildings, and road and river systems.
Such an outline, or profile, could be superimposed over an area of water located away from populated areas or environmental concerns, such as known fisheries areas.
An aircraft or ship could then fire on the simulated target with live ordnance. Operators aboard ship, or perhaps ashore, would see the battle take place, using computer images from the cameras of an unmanned aerial vehicle flying near the battle scene to record hits and misses.
Sonar buoys strategically placed in the water would triangulate the impact of the ordnance and tell how close it came to hitting the targets.
One Navy officer familiar with the training device said it would allow battle groups, as well as individual ships and aircraft, toscript actual combat missions in advance in a type of "mission rehearsal" as they receive virtual at-sea training.
"We are getting three sets of them delivered as a portable means of doing this by Nov.1," Natter said.
If tests in the Gulf of Mexico this fall validate their effectiveness, Natter said he will buy 10 more sets next fiscal year. At $50,000 a set, the devices appear affordable and easily used by various ships and commands, he said. "We also envision installing a permanent range at sea for firing these weapons . . . and we also are looking at being able to utilize our ranges better," Natter said.
While continued use of the Vieques range seems improbable, officials say leaving the island may not be the calamity the Navy once thought it was.
Longer-range weapons, such as cruise missiles that can travel 1,400 miles, plus precision-guided bombs that use satellites to pinpoint positions, mean that bombing ranges such as Vieques are quickly becoming antiquated.
"Most of what we are doing now involves precision-guided munitions," said an Atlantic Fleet official familiar with the Navy'splans for increased use of U.S.-based ranges. What once took 100 bombs to destroy now takes one bomb because of its accuracy, he said.
While Natter is reluctant to say the demise of the Vieques range may have been a watershed event for the Navy, some in his command say that may not be far from the case.
Natter has met with state officials, mainly in Florida, about ways the Navy could better use the bombing ranges that already exist. In many cases the ranges are owned by the Air Force or National Guard and have not been used much by the Navy. "We've gotten great cooperation, not only from the leadership of Florida . . . but also the Air Force and other groups," Natter said.
While the overall plan has not been approved by either Navy Secretary Gordon England or Congress, it's in the works, Natter said, and could be approved within weeks.
"We needed a plan for moving on beyond Vieques ," said one training officer in Natter's command. "This is one small piece of it, but it is really a plan for us to get our arms around the whole training resource business."
By developing a series of ranges throughout the East Coast and setting up ranges at sea, the Navy would avoid concentrating in any one area where a storm or a political uproar could shut it down.
"That was one of the challenges of Vieques ," the training officer said. "It was a very small target area. Once you were there, you knew where every target was and it was not very challenging."
One advantage of replacing the Puerto Rican training area is the shorter time it will take to get to a range off the East Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico. Normally ships take four days to reach Vieques . That will be cut to a day or two for ships training off the Carolinas or Florida.
Natter envisions building a permanent range at sea off South Carolina where long-range weapons such as 5-inch deck guns with 13- mile ranges could be fired.
There, the electronic overlays of a specific city or region would give the ships and aircraft their simulated, but seemingly real, targets.
"Instead of just firing on a dirt pile in Vieques , if you have overhead photographs of downtown Beirut, you can put that in as a simulated target and can actually train to future targets," Natter said.