“The big fight to save the test range is to prevent oil exploration. Congress is unlikely to destroy something it's already invested in.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Efforts by Congressman Matt Gaetz to ensure the military test range in the Gulf of Mexico remains a viable personnel training and munitions testing area got a boost this week when the U.S. House included his proposed $30 million investment in military test ranges in the National Defense Authorization Act. 

The Gulf Test Range is used by a wide range of military units, including Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Fighter Wing and 96th Test Wing, and the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field. The range accommodates high-altitude supersonic air combat training, air-to-air missile testing, drone targeting, hypersonic weapons testing and space launches. 

The $30 million placed into the NDAA, which could be available as early as December with congressional approval, “is absolutely essential to ‘BRAC-proof’ the military mission in Northwest Florida,” Gaetz said Wednesday. 

BRAC, or Base Realignment and Closure, is the process used by the federal government to close, realign or replace military missions and units. 

The NDAA funding would be used to improve the telemetry capabilities within the nearly 120,000-square-mile test range, said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. 

The telemetry equipment currently on the range — automated communications gear which provides data on the performance of munitions, other military equipment and military personnel — has not been comprehensively updated since at least the early 1970s, according to Gaetz, although it has been improved sporadically over the years. 

As a result, training and evaluation of munitions tested there has not been as effective as it might have been, as development of communications and data collection equipment aboard aircraft and munitions has outpaced the range’s telemetry capabilities. In some instances, the telemetry equipment does not recognize the munitions and equipment operating in the range, Gaetz said. 

Improving the equipment would also allow for more of the area to be used for training and testing, Gaetz said. In recent years, more than 80 training flights per year have been canceled because of congestion and airspace limitations, he said. 

Gaetz also noted that improving airspace availability in the Gulf Test Range is becoming important in connection with the need for development of missiles that can fly faster and farther than current munitions. 

Gaetz also said Tuesday that the $30 million allocation to improve the Gulf Test Range could serve as a disincentive for Congress to lift oil and gas leasing restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico, a move which could jeopardize the military's use of the area.

Currently, oil and gas leasing in the Gulf are prohibited within 125 miles of the Florida coastline under terms of the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act of 2006. The ban is set to expire in 2022, and Gaetz believes investing in the test range could prompt Congress to keep the ban in place. 

“The big fight to save the test range is to prevent oil exploration,” Gaetz said Wednesday, adding that with a $30 million allocation to improving the range, “Congress is unlikely to destroy something it’s already invested in.” 

If the money is included in the National Defense Authorization Act, it will be a few years before any new telemetry equipment is installed in the Gulf Test Range, as bidding and other acquisition processes move forward, Gaetz explained. 

In a news release, Gaetz called the inclusion of the money in the act “a tremendous victory for Florida’s First Congressional District. America’s military readiness depends on proper training.”