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RAND analysis: Eglin Air Force Base test range should have higher priority for upgrades

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — The Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range should get a slightly higher priority for upgrades than is currently planned by the Air Force, according to a recently released RAND Corp. analysis.

The Eglin range, managed by the 96th Test Wing, covers 724 square miles of the Florida Panhandle and 120,000 square miles of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, stretching south to Key West. The range accommodates high-altitude supersonic air combat training, air-to-air missile testing, drone targeting, hypersonic weapons testing and space launches, among other testing and training activities, for an array of the military services. 

The analysis, released earlier this year, is part of the nonprofit think tank's Project Air Force, which serves as the federally funded research and development center for studies and analyses for the Air Force and Space Force.

From 2019: Large quantities of munitions fired, dropped into Gulf Test Range

More:Florida senators Scott, Rubio, renew push to extend oil and gas moratorium in eastern Gulf

The test range analysis focuses on the Air Force's own determination that "few, if any" of the service's existing training ranges can provide fighter pilots with the training needed to address the threats posed by near-peer adversaries.

The preface to the RAND study focuses on the 2018 national defense strategy that called for restoring warfighter readiness and moving the military from counterterrorism operations to "great power" competition, notably between the United States, Russia and China.

The preface contends that "(o)ne element in meeting this goal is enabling units to train in an environment that is sufficiently representative of the threats posed by a major power."

This map shows the Air Force and Navy training areas within the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range. According to a recently released analysis, few if any of the Air Force's training ranges meet the current training needs for Air Force fighter pilots.

For Air Force fighter pilots, the study preface continues, "This means training at ranges with appropriate airspace, threat emitters (electronic warfare simulators), targets and electronic support measures.

"Flying in these environments allows pilots to train in conditions consistent with those expected in an actual conflict and to experience firsthand the latest technology threat systems’ capabilities," the RAND document notes. "This type of advanced training better prepares pilots to meet operational plan execution requirements and more effectively enables the USAF to organize, train and equip its forces."

Specifically with regard to the Gulf Test Range, data included in the RAND report show that the Air Force's Office of the Director of Training and Readiness has it listed sixth among the 17 Air Force training ranges in terms of priority for upgrades.

The RAND analysis, though, puts the Gulf Test Range fourth on the list, ahead of ranges and similar facilities associated with Air Force bases in Idaho, Utah and Texas, among other locales.

The analysis puts the Gulf Test Range below the Nevada Test and Training Range, the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona in terms of its assessment of priorities for upgrades.

The RAND analysis and recommendations are based on the anticipated force structure for the Air Force in 2025. That structure has the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin, flying the F-35A, along with the 40th Flight Test Squadron, also flying the F-35A, and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, currently flying the F-15 and the F-16.

In addition to considering range upgrades, the study also factored in various scenarios in which squadrons would be moved around the country to place pilots within about 175 miles of an upgraded training range. That proximity would ensure that those pilots could readily fly an adequate number of training sorties, the analysis noted.

Beyond those considerations, RAND also considered climate data, electric power reliability and exposure to hazards such as flooding, earthquakes and wildfires in making its recommendations on range upgrades and squadron repositioning.

An F-15 Eagle conducts air-to-air missile testing over the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range. A RAND Corp. study recommends that the Gulf Test Range be moved up the Air Force's list of priorities for range upgrades.

In recent years, millions of dollars have been steered to upgrading the telemetry equipment in the Gulf Test Range. The equipment, which provides data on weapons and munitions performance, in addition to other metrics, had not been comprehensively upgraded since the 1970s, and some of it has not been able to sync up with more modern electronic data-gathering equipment.

The potential for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico also has been a lingering issue for the Gulf Test Range. A moratorium on such exploration had been scheduled to end June 30 of next year, but former President Donald Trump issued an executive order while he was in office that extends the moratorium to 2032.

Trump's executive order could, however, be overridden at any time, a circumstance that has prompted Florida's two U.S. senators, Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, to introduce legislation that would more firmly extend the moratorium to 2032.

Introduced in late January, the Florida Shores Protection and Fairness Act has seen no action beyond being assigned to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.