Can't You Train Somewhere Else?
That seems to be the sentiment of some New Jersey residents, after a flare from an Air National Guard (ANG) F-16 ignited a wildfire that burned over 13,000 acres in the southern portion of that state. A spokesman for the New Jersey ANG said the jet was on a training mission at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range when the flare sparked the blaze.
Gauging reaction from local residents, The New York Times--predictably--led with this quote, from a woman forced to leave her upscale home:
“I don’t think they should be doing it,” said Brenda Schoeneberg, 46, on Tuesday evening as she prepared to evacuate her sprawling neo-Colonial home in Warren Grove, N.J., where a stand of pine trees was silhouetted against the blaze 200 yards away.
The Times dutifully reports that this is the fourth time in eight years that Guard jets at Warren Grove have started fires or caused other damage in the local area, leaving "residents feeling as if they live in a war zone." In 2004, the pilot of another F-16 fired an inadvertent burst from his 20 mm cannon that struck a school about three miles from the range. The incident occurred at night (when the school was empty), and damage was minimal. Two years earlier, practice bombs at Warren Grove touched off another fire that burned 11,000 acres, and a smaller fire in 1999 scorched 1,600 acres of area woodlands.
Unanswered in the Times account is the larger question of where Guard pilots should train if Warren Grove was unavailable. Even in an era of satellite-guided munitions and advanced aircraft, pilots still need to practice the basic bombing and gunnery skills required to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while some training can be conducted over water (such as air combat drills), bombing and strafing is best practiced on a ground range, where instruments can record the accuracy of a pilot's skills. Dispensing flares--like the one that caused the fire--is also an essential part of air-to-ground training, allowing them to deploy the missile defenses they would use against shoulder-fired SAMs.
Warren Grove is located in the Pine Barrens, a rural portion of New Jersey that the Times describes as the largest piece of open space between Boston and Richmond. The remote location is one reason the range was established in that area almost 50 years ago. It's also convenient for ANG F-16s based in Atlantic City, and Pennsylvania Guard A-10s from the Philadelphia area. Without the Warren Grove range, New Jersey and Pennsylvania guard pilots would have to fly farther south--perhaps to the Dare County Range in North Carolina--to accomplish their training, at a considerably higher cost in flight time, maintenance and jet fuel.
The military says it has no plans to close the range--nor should it. While occasional accidents will happen, they are an unfortunate--though thankfully rare--by-product keeping combat pilots prepared for their mission. The Defense Department will compensate property owners who suffered losses from the fire, just as it did after previous incidents. It's a small price to pay for training that may save the life of an F-16 or A-10 pilot in combat, or improve their ability to kill terrorists on the ground.