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08-04-07, 06:39 PM #1
Corps mulls expanding combat center
Corps mulls expanding combat center
By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Aug 4, 2007 8:43:04 EDT
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — The Marine Corps’ largest training base just might be getting bigger.
Officials want to expand the Corps’ 935-square-mile desert training area near Twentynine Palms, Calif., so it’s large enough to support the full scale of combat training as the service grows by more than 20,000 Marines.
The service recently got the green light from the Pentagon to move ahead with a study of possible land purchases near the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, a spokeswoman confirmed.
“During the study, we will be analyzing land near the boundaries of the combat center for possible acquisition, as well as looking into any airspace requirements that may be needed to support training in the respective area,” Capt. Amy Malugani, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Tuesday in a response to questions from Marine Corps Times.
Under orders to expand the Corps to 202,000 Marines by 2011, top leaders say they also need to push out the center’s physical boundaries to accommodate the combat training requirements for those leathernecks.
The Marine Corps is potentially eyeing public lands near the combat center that are managed by the federal government, including the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees a patchwork of parcels across California’s vast desert.
“The additional land would afford the combat center the ability to accommodate the growing force, providing important training opportunities,” Malugani added.
“It is imperative that Marines receive the most realistic training before deploying into a combat environment which demands split-second life-or-death decisions,” Malugani said. An expansion “would allow Marines to ‘train as they fight’ at a large-scale Marine air-ground task-force level. This critical training will push Marines to their physical, mental and emotional limits, ultimately saving lives on the battlefield.”
The Corps’ first step is to conduct an environmental assessment and a more detailed environmental impact statement. Both processes, required under the National Environmental Policy Act, “will involve a great deal of input from the local community,” Malugani said.
The Mojave Desert is dotted with off-highway vehicle areas managed by BLM, including Johnson Valley, along the west border of the combat center. The areas north and east of the combat center are patchworks of open space parcels and several desert wildlife management areas.
Any expansion plans likely will draw protest from conservationists who have fought to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise, listed as a threatened species, from off-road recreational uses and development, including an ongoing expansion of the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, north of Barstow.
“Things aren’t looking good for the desert tortoise,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz.
Anderson, who had not seen specifics about the Corps’ expansion plans, said she was concerned about the possible impact on the tortoise’s health, noting that ongoing monitoring programs have raised concerns about disease.
“We’ve seen just die-off sweeps across the Mojave,” she said.
The extent of environmental impact will hinge on what specific parcels the Corps wants to use. “I don’t know how much land they would absorb and for what purpose they would be using it for,” said Lisa Belenky, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Development in the desert region threatens the protection of existing federal lands designated as wilderness or desert wildlife management areas and places more and more homes closer to military training areas, Belenky said. “You can see and hear the bombing in the evening,” she said, noting more home construction in places including Joshua Tree, Wonder Valley and Twentynine Palms.
“The sprawl development is just pushing right up” to the base boundaries.
Room to stretch
The additional space is expected to give Marines — specifically, air-ground task forces as large as brigade-size — the room to stretch their forces as they train on the center’s ranges.
The combat center’s 598,400 acres — nearly five times the size of Camp Pendleton, Calif. — cover desert flats and mountains, making the center one of the premier training sites for desert warfare. But most of that acreage is not available for training.
“To date, only 40 percent of the combat center is available for maneuver training,” Malugani said. “The remaining 60 percent of the land is self-imposed safety buffer zones, protected environmental and cultural resource areas and not easily accessible mountainous terrain.”
For 54 years, tens of thousands of leathernecks have fought mock tank wars and combined-arms battles and trained on the center’s ranges, including rifle and other weapons, urban warfare and vast live-fire operating and maneuver ranges.
In recent years, the center has seen a major growth spurt, with the construction and expansion of training ranges designed for convoy and urban operations, as well as mock Iraqi or Middle Eastern towns, villages and truck stops. Training at the center, which hosts exercises including the monthly “Mojave Viper” pre-deployment workups, has been constant as ground combat units prepare for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2001, and again in 2002, several thousand Marines took to the Southern California deserts in “Desert Scimitar” exercises in which they maneuvered from the combat center in 600 combat vehicles through Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties and crossed the Colorado River on makeshift bridges. The exercises served as a precursor to 1st Marine Division’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The expansion plan, part of the Marine Corps’ training capability modernization program, has been approved by the Marine Corps Requirements Oversight Committee and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Under the NEPA process, several public hearings would be scheduled to get feedback on the Corps’ initial proposals, which would include proposed purchase of specific land parcels, as well as the alternative of no expansion.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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