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Gannett News Service

Navy Preparing To Increase Training In Gulf


December 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gannett News Service. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON -- West Florida military bases will host at least part of a major Navy training exercise next year, the commander of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet said in an interview with Gannett News Service.

Anticipating that the Navy will abandon its historic training ground at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico , Adm. Robert Natter said a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and elements of its battle group are likely to appear in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003.

"I would anticipate a full-blown carrier battle group exercise down the east coast en route to exercises off Key West and into the gulf," Natter said. Port calls would be likely after the exercises conclude.

Natter's comments offer further assurance that the Navy intends to follow through on a plan to increase its use of existing training ranges, runways, bombing zones and port facilities from North Carolina to the Allegheny Pier at Pensacola Naval Air Station, the cradle of naval aviation.

The Navy is preparing to end its use of the Vieques bombing range, largely because of public protests.

West Florida officials anticipate the increased Navy training will provide an economic boost, primarily from ships making port calls. But, perhaps more importantly, they view the additional Navy exercises as insurance going into the next round of base closures and realignments in 2005.

"It reinforces the tremendous importance these assets in Northwest Florida have to the nation," said Vann Goodloe, vice president of Armed Services for the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. "And the added side benefit is the fact that it is a boost to our local economy when military visitors come in."

Port calls bring cash

A port call to Pensacola Naval Air Station from the USS Enterprise in 2000 generated an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 in local spending, Goodloe said.

The USS Harry S. Truman's 4,600-person crew spent an estimated $1.1 million in Key West on a port call in September while other related services, including dock fees, trash removal and water taxis accounted for another $500,000 in spending.

Natter, who commands 112,000 sailors and marines, 183 ships and 1,200 aircraft, as well as 18 major shore stations, is aware that local expectations are building.

"I'm honest and straight forward," said Natter who met with community leaders throughout Florida this fall. "I'm not going to promise the moon when all I can deliver is what we can deliver. There will be some economic impact in some areas."

As for providing cover from a base realignment and closure commission that has yet to form, Natter said he sympathized with those living in communities whose economies and identities are closely tied to the military.

"If I was in their community as a civilian, I may take (that position) as well," Natter said.

Military spending is the economic anchor of the region, Goodloe said.

$1 of every $5 spent locally is connected to the military, he said.

The best way for an area to insulate itself from consideration for a base realignment or closure would be to use existing military facilities to the maximum extent, said Capt. Michael Brady, a senior spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet.

"If a facility is underutilized, it becomes a greater target," Brady said. "If you can show training facilities along the Gulf Coast are utilized to the maximum extent by the Air Force and Navy, to some extent that kind of makes you better postured than another facility that is not utilized as much."

Navy spends millions to prepare

To prepare Florida bases for the increased traffic, the Navy has spent approximately $22 million in the past year, almost all of it in Key West to repair hangars, install security fencing and upgrade air traffic control equipment.

The Navy has committed to spend $1 million to dredge the channel between the western tip of Santa Rosa Island and the eastern end of Perdido Key.

Storms and other natural processes have washed sand into the channel, giving it a depth of about 36 feet at its shallowest. Aircraft carriers need 45 to 50 feet of clearance to maneuver safely, said Capt. John Pruitt, commander at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The maintenance dredge will remove at least 150,000 cubic yards of sand and restore the channel to a depth of about 44 feet, marginal clearance for a lightly loaded carrier but plenty of room for any other Navy vessel that might be training with a battle group, Pruitt said.

Deepening the channel to accommodate a fully loaded supercarrier would be an extensive undertaking and cost an estimated $50 million, Pruitt said.

That kind of project is not currently in the Navy's thinking, he said.

Increased air traffic likely

Pruitt said the Navy could send a battle group into the gulf for extensive exercises as early as June.

If that happens, Sherman Field's hangars and runways likely will become temporary home to a Navy air wing flying "opposition" sorties against the vessels and aircraft accompanying the battle group and its carrier.

That means more than two dozen F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Hornets, EA-6B Prowlers, E-2 Hawkeyes and other aircraft will be rattling windows when they roar off the Sherman Field runway.

"I anticipate more complaints about noise," said Pruitt. "But I'm going to wait and see what happens."

Sherman Field is typically a much quieter place, hosting slower, quieter propeller-driven planes piloted by flight students.

Residential development west of the air station, the primary direction for takeoff from Sherman Field, has been a growing issue for Navy officials and community leaders.

Pruitt hopes to reduce complaints from civilians living outside the station's west gate by mounting an aggressive information campaign prior to increased flight operations.

"We'll let folks know what we expect," Pruitt said. "It would be slightly noisier than the aircraft taking off now and there would be an increase in the tempo of operations. I imagine the tempo would generate more complaints than the specific noise.

Pruitt said a visiting air wing flying opposition to a battle group in the gulf could as much as double the number of daily sorties currently flown out of the air station.

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