Gulf of Mexico
US Dept of Defense

Large quantities of munitions fired, dropped into Gulf of Mexico Test Range

Today, the Gulf of Mexico continues to be an ongoing repository for munitions, although for purposes other than mere disposal, and under tight safety and environmental controls.

EGLIN AFB — From World War I through the 1970s, untold tons of military munitions were dumped all but surreptitiously into ocean waters along the U.S. coasts, including the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, the Gulf continues to be an ongoing repository for munitions, although for purposes other than mere disposal and under tight safety and environmental controls.

Approximately 120,000 square miles of the eastern Gulf, designated along with 724 square miles on land as the Eglin Gulf Test & Training Range managed by the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, now serve as the U.S. military’s largest test and training range.

Among its missions, Eglin is responsible for the development, acquisition, testing, and deployment and sustainment of all air-delivered non-nuclear military weapons. The Gulf Test Range hosts activities including air-to-air missile testing, hypersonic weapons testing, bomb testing, drone targeting, space launches and high-altitude supersonic air combat training.

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“Weapons testing and training at Eglin Air Force Base over the Gulf of Mexico is vital to the success of the warfighter, the Air Force, and our nation,” Eglin officials noted in an email submitted in response to questions about the test range. “The purpose of this testing is to continue the development of new weapons systems and employment techniques and procedures.”

As a part of all of that work, hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition and countermeasures (flares designed to keep missiles and other munitions from striking an aircraft), and hundreds of bombs and missiles are fired into the Eglin Gulf Test & Training Range by a wide range of U.S. military units each year. Some percentage of the ammunition, bombs and missiles fired in the range are live while the remaining are non-explosive inert, according to information from Eglin on its own use of the test range.

Bombs and bullets, by the numbers

While all U.S. military services take advantage of the Eglin Gulf Test & Training Range, the Air Force is a particularly heavy user. The Air Force “currently expends approximately 550 bombs, 580 missiles, 1,218,000 rounds (of ammunition), and 637,000 countermeasures” annually into the range, according to a May 2018 report from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on military activities in the eastern Gulf.

While those numbers might seem high, they are within the levels established by the federal government. “These expenditures are at approximately 87 percent of the levels currently authorized under the National Environmental Policy Act,” the 2018 report states.

In the email responding to the Daily News, Eglin officials outlined the recent history of the base’s use of the range.

According to that accounting, Eglin units last year dropped 67 pieces of ordnance in the range — 17 of which were live and the remaining 50 of which were inert. Additionally, according to the data, Eglin-based activity in the range in 2018 included the firing of 5,885 rounds of ammunition into the Gulf, of which 5,757 were inert.

Other data provided by Eglin covering from 2012-18 indicate that the largest number of ordnance pieces dropped into the range for Eglin-based activities was the 113 pieces expended there in 2013. Fifty-seven of those pieces of ordnance were live, according to the figures.

Additionally, the Eglin data showed that 2015 marked a high point for the firing of ammunition, as opposed to the dropping of bombs and other ordnance, into the Gulf. In that year, the data show, Eglin fired 43,700 rounds of ammunition in the test range, although only 1,042 rounds were live.

Overall from 2012-18, 619 pieces of ordnance were dropped or fired into the Gulf, with 125 of those pieces being live. During that same period, 134,526 rounds of ammunition were fired during Eglin-based activities in the test range, of which 3,279 were live.

In most cases, according to the Secretary of Defense report, those weapons and ammunition were fired into a section of the range extending from Hurlburt Field east past Tyndall Air Force to near the city of Carrabelle, and from there more than 100 miles south into the Gulf.

Human and marine mammal safety

At Eglin, the 96th Test Wing’s responsibilities include the “annual tracking and reporting of live munitions through several base agencies, including our environmental and operations teams ... .” Those teams, officials said, are required to report testing to state as well as federal agencies.

Also, unlike the munitions dumping of years gone by, the discharge of live and inert bombs, missiles and ammunition into the Gulf is conducted with strict attention to human safety. Testing also is tightly regulated to protect certain species of marine life — most specifically the bottlenose dolphin and the Atlantic spotted dolphin, which are a protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“Missions do not proceed until the target area is confirmed to be clear of unauthorized vessels and protected species,” Eglin officials said in the email to the Daily News.

In terms of human safety, a “danger zone” is established around test areas before each mission. Before any activities take place, the area is searched and cleared by Eglin aircraft and by vessels. Additionally, base officials explained, “cameras located at the test site are also used to monitor for the presence of unauthorized vessels and protected species.”

Specifically with regard to the protection of marine mammals and other animal life, range operations are governed by a letter of authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, detailing monitoring requirements both before and after training missions and setting other standards for operations on the range.

The current NMFS authorization for the test range, which sets strict limits on the number of affected marine mammals that can be “taken” — harrassed, hunted, captured or killed — incidental to operations in the test range was issued in 2018 and remains in effect until February 2023.

“Eglin AFB has obtained authorizations from the NMFS in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act for impacts to federally protected marine species,” Eglin officials said in their recent email.

Interestingly, authorizations to conduct test missions obtained through the NMFS address only “live weapons that detonate on or below the water surface or target,” and are not concerned with the dropping of inert weapons or the firing of inert ammunition.

According to the Eglin email, that differentiation is in place because various analyses of the affects of munitions testing on protected marine species “determined that inert weapons releases do not impact federally protected marine species to the level that would require documentation under the MMPA and ESA protocols.”

The current NMFS authorization for the Gulf Test Range includes a number of requirements for mitigating the incidental taking of protected marine mammals. Among the precautions required of units are delaying the use of live ordnance if large schools of fish or large flocks of birds are seen in a mission area, and delaying missions if weather and sea conditions preclude monitoring the planned testing area for marine life.

Under the current NMFS authorization for using the test range, two species of whales are afforded special protection. According to the authorization, “If one or more sperm or baleen whales are detected during pre-mission monitoring activities, mission activities shall be aborted/suspended for the remainder of the day.”

According to the Eglin email, the base’s Natural Resources Office “relies on designated and trained marine species observers ... to survey the protection zone before each mission.”

Each year, Eglin’s Natural Resources Office prepares an annual report for the National Marine Fisheries Service that, according to the email, “includes the number of live weapons that detonated on or below the water surface” in the previous year. The report also describes the mitigation measures implemented for each test mission “and determines whether impacts to protected species occurred.”

The future of the range

According to the May 2018 report from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, titled “Preserving Military Readiness in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” changes in the usage and the safety procedures employed in the test range likely are coming.

For example, two relatively new programs at Eglin have required a reassessment of the test range’s resources.

The Air Force Armament Directorate at Eglin is managing two fast-track programs that could total more than $1.4 billion to design and build prototypes of hypersonic missiles — weapons capable of traveling up to five times the speed of sound, or more than a mile per second.

In April of last year, a $928 million contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems division in Huntsville, Alabama, for design and development of a hypersonic missile. Four months later, the Armament Directorate awarded a second contract, not to exceed $480 million, to Lockheed’s Missiles and Fire Control division in Orlando for development of a different type of hypersonic missile that would give the United States a hypersonic missile capability by November 2021.

Russia and China also are developing hypersonic weapons. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country had already deployed one hypersonic missile. Also last year, China announced the successful test of a hypersonic weapon.

Last year’s Secretary of Defense report indicated that studies were then in progress “to assess the sufficiency of range resources to provide the long-term capability required to transition these technologies to the Warfighter and to sustain and operate them.”

One issue, according to the report, is that the speed of the hypersonic missiles will require a larger safety footprint than current weapons.

The ongoing development of directed-energy weapons, employing high-energy laser and high-power microwave technology, also could stretch the capabilities of the range, according to the report.

Overall, as far as safety is concerned, the report notes that “as newer weapon systems and weapons are developed and fielded, current practices will have to evolve.”

See NW Florida Daily News article . . .

See also What lies beneath: Gulf Likely holds tons of discarded munitions, The Destin Log