A well-trained military is an effective military — and a well-trained military needs a place to train. One of America’s most important military testing and training facilities is the Gulf Test Range, with 120,000 square miles of overwater airspace from the Florida Panhandle to the Florida Keys. It is a critical space for American’s military to train on military technology. Unfortunately, air training operations are currently constrained to the northern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, due south of Eglin Air Force Base. This constrictive geographical limitation has resulted in substantial aircraft congestion, and a sharp reduction in mission-critical training flights.

America’s pilots are unable to fly often enough, long enough, or far enough. Recent studies have revealed that aircraft congestion has kept at least 80 training missions per year from taking place, and has prevented numerous F-35 and F-22 warfighters from undertaking mission-relevant training.

The Florida DMV requires teenagers to drive 50 hours before they are eligible to take their driving test. F-22 pilots who defend America from foreign adversaries need training, too, and test flights are a crucial part of that training.

In 2006, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act halted oil and gas exploration east of the Military Mission Line, the “outer boundary” so to speak, of the Gulf Test Range. The “GOMESA moratorium,” as it is called, remains in effect until June 2022. Yet despite its clear language, the Gulf is still an area of acute interest to energy producers, who have been emboldened by the Department of the Interior’s recent push for new drilling sites.

Anthony Kurta, acting undersecretary of defense, has said the moratorium “is essential for developing and sustaining our nation’s future combat capabilities.” He’s right. While energy independence is a worthy goal, if it comes at the expense of national security, it will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

This year, we fought for improvements to the Gulf Test Range, and successfully secured $27.4 million in new funding. This is money well spent: it will allow the brave men and women of our military to test and train on current- and next-generation technology. Some of America’s most advanced munitions are so specialized that they can only be tested in two places in the world: the Gulf Test Range, or off the Australian coast. Clearly the latter option is not viable.

Extending the drilling moratorium is of paramount importance to America. The fundamental purpose of the government is to defend and protect the United States. When we jeopardize military readiness, we jeopardize our national security — to say nothing of the potential environmental catastrophes offshore drilling can cause. Florida’s Gulf Coast remembers the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill all too well. The best way to prevent accidents like that from happening again is to prevent further drilling.

For America’s national security, for the environment, and for the men and women who defend our freedom, we cannot in good conscience allow the moratorium to expire in 2022. 

This guest column was written by District 1 U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and District 4 Florida Rep. Mel Ponder.