Navy might double the size of bombing range in Georgia to aid Beaufort pilots

Navy officials might purchase as much as 45,000 acres near a Georgia bombing range to give pilots from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort a chance to train closer to home.

The Navy announced plans last week to expand Townsend Bombing Range, a 5,183-acre range in McIntosh County, Ga. owned by the air station.

According to a notice published in the Federal Register, the Navy could opt to purchase some combination or all of three parcels near the range identified as possible expansion sites. If approved, the range could grow by between 11,000 and 45,000 acres, according to the notice. The Navy also could opt not to expand the range, which opened in 1981 and is maintained by the Georgia Air National Guard.The notice did notspecify how much the land might cost.

At its current size, the range allows air crews to complete only 43 percent of their training requirements and is too small to allow pilots to drop inert, precision-guided munitions, according to air station officials.

If the range expanded, pilots would be able to complete 93 percent of their training requirements at Townsend, which is about a 15-minute flight from MCAS Beaufort, said Cpl. Christopher Zahn, air station spokesman.

"It is imperative that Marines receive the most realistic training before deploying to combat," said Col. John Snider, the air station's commanding officer. "The modernization of our range in Townsend would allow Marines to train as they fight, with precision-guided munitions."

Now, air station pilots and entire F-18 Hornet squadrons are sent forseveral months to MCAS Yuma, Ariz., orMCAS Miramar, Calif., at a cost of $150,000 to $350,000 per trip, Zahn said. The amount of training pilots undergo each year depends on the deployment schedule of the unit to which they are assigned.

"The whole squadron has to go because planes don't fly by themselves," Zahn said.

Public hearings to discuss the proposal have been scheduled for later this month in Ludowici, Ga., and Darien, Ga. and a draft report examining potential environmental effects is expected to be released next fall, according to the Navy.

McIntosh CountyManager Luther Smart said he expects little, if any, local opposition to the Navy's plans to purchase the property, most of which is owned by timber companies.

"So far, I haven't gotten any negative feedback," Smart said. "The bombing range has been there a long time and I've never gotten any complaints."

The Navy is expected to make its final decision in 2012.