Drill or No Drill?

Drill or No Drill? Could Offshore Platforms Affect National Security?By Scott Jackson

Beyond the wondrous vista of the shimmering and pristine coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico reside two of our nation’s most precious resources – the oil and gas reserves below and the airspace above. While the value of further oil and gas exploration to the nation’s security is commonly known, the value of the airspace is not.

The traditional pillars of economic growth normally incorporate land, labor and capital. But in Northwest Florida, there is another pillar that is equally valuable – airspace. It allows not only the flow of commercial aviation for business and tourism but military training and testing. Supersonic dogfights, training missions and weapons testing are conducted by F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor fighter jets, as well as other military aircraft, in specified blocks of airspace. Such exercises occur at carefully scheduled times to allow pilots unfettered concentration to scream through the air and hone their combat skills in a deliriously swirling amalgamation of blue skies, white clouds and emerald waters. Without undue interference, their mindset is rechanneled to the challenge – kill or be killed.

But the waters below this airspace are also coveted for their rich oil and gas reserves by a country seeking energy independence.

The USAF’s  F-15 and F-22 are used extensively in Gulf exercises. Photo courtesy United States Air Force.

Eglin Air Force Base’s Air Armament Center conducts test and evaluation missions of new weapons involving full-size target drone aircraft in the skies over the 130,000-square-mile test and training range in the eastern Gulf – an area larger than the state of New Mexico. Between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, more than 3,400 test missions were flown in this airspace.

Any civilian encroachment on this training area could reduce the military value of Eglin’s mission to test and evaluate new weapon systems. It isn’t the type of testing that can be efficiently performed anywhere else in the continental United States.

“The Eglin Water Test Range has more airspace available for testing new and legacy weapons than the combined airspace of all U.S. land ranges,” said Bob Arnold, chief of Eglin’s Mission Enhancement Committee. “This is important due to the increasing safety footprint size of our new fighter aircraft conducting air-to-air missile tests and training missions. The increased speed of these aircraft, coupled with the added range of the missiles, requires larger ‘clear areas’ for target debris resulting from our testing.”

This range provides training areas for military pilots sharpening their combat skills from Air Force runways at Eglin, Tyndall Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field. And the future addition of the new F-35 Lightning II, a state-of-the-art supersonic fighter scheduled to arrive at Eglin in 2010, will demand even more use of the airspace. The Naval Surface Warfare Center at Panama City also uses the Gulf waters for testing and evaluation in the areas of mine warfare, special warfare, diving and life support.

The combined economic impact of these four installations is $8.9 billion for Okaloosa and Bay counties, according to the Florida Defense Fact Book published by the University of West Florida’s Haas Business Center.

Oil and gas drilling operations in the waters of the range cannot co-exist with ongoing Air Force testing without coordination and a firm understanding between them. These behemoth rigs cost upwards of $1 billion and incorporate a logistics lifeline to the mainland.

“Our concern over oil/gas activity is related to the possible damage to oil/gas platforms associated with permanent production activity,” Arnold said. Moreover, the additional boat and helicopter support activity would require safe passage, and the radio emissions from the oil and gas platforms could interfere with military missions.

As part of Eglin’s test and evaluation mission, a fleet of 50 Vietnam-era QF-4 fighter jets are used as remotely piloted, full-sized target drones, along with smaller drones for missile training and evaluation by the 82nd Aerial Targets Group operating from Tyndall Air Force Base.

“Above-surface oil/gas platforms are incompatible with our military operations in areas of the Gulf of Mexico where we shoot down things like unmanned drone aircraft,” Arnold said. “Debris from these types of operations pose a serious safety hazard for the platforms and personnel who operate them, so obviously, this is not a situation we can allow to occur.” According to Arnold, the downing of a 25-ton QF-4 can produce tens of thousands of pieces of debris, with the wreckage hitting the water with the force of a minivan collision at 45 mph.

Eglin has been working with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service – the agency that manages offshore drilling – for 25 years on the issue of offshore leases. In a June 2008 meeting, with the Minerals Management Service, the Air Force agreed to reassess its needs in the test and training range in the eastern Gulf to accommodate oil and gas exploration, according to a September article in the Bay Beacon.

“We recognize the importance to national security provided by oil/gas energy and are working with (the Minerals Management Service) to accommodate new exploration without impact to our mission,” Arnold said.

In 2005, Eglin created the Military Mission Line, a demarcation of its airspace extending south from Hurlburt Field. Military officials say drilling and exploration on the west side of that line would not affect training and testing.

A ban on permanent, above-surface structures east of what is now the Military Mission Line was agreed on in 1986. This affected 95 previously granted exploration leases sold by the government in that area. For those leases, Eglin allowed five temporary blocks of time for exploration, one area at a time. These time blocks shifted every three months while the military test missions were temporarily moved to other areas.

Should oil companies want to produce oil or gas platforms resulting from exploration, they would require a different kind of lease from the Minerals Management Service that has been coordinated with the military, according to Arnold. To date, no such requests have been approved.

If production is ever permitted, the Air Force would prefer to see subsurface technology like that used off the Alabama coast, where above-surface platforms act as hubs connected to subsurface wells by pipelines and do not pose a risk to test and evaluation missions.

“We’re perfectly OK with subsurface activity,” Arnold said.

Eglin allowed construction in 2001 of a 36-inch diameter, 419-mile steel pipeline on the sea bed between Mobile, Ala., and Tampa – a path that took the project directly through Eglin’s water ranges. The $1.6 billion project provides Floridians with 1.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day without interfering with military missions.

As the debate about drilling in the eastern Gulf continues, the coordination and communication between the Air Force and the federal government will continue as it has over the past 25 years as they work to balance competing needs for exploration and the critical test and evaluation requirements that serve our national security needs.

QF-4 Image courtesy U.S. Air Force/ Master Sgt. Shaun Withers
QF-4 Image courtesy U.S. Air Force/ Master Sgt. Shaun Withers.
Testing the QF-4

The supersonic QF-4 is a reusable, full-scale target drone modified from the F-4 Phantom. It provides a realistic target for air-to-air weapons-system evaluation, development and testing for Eglin’s Air Armament Center.

The QF-4 is a remotely controlled target that simulates enemy aircraft profiles and maneuvers. The aircraft is launched from a runway separate from the main operating runway at Tyndall Air Force Base.

The drone can be flown by remote control or with a safety pilot to monitor its performance. It is flown unmanned when missiles are fired at it, and only in specific over-water airspace authorized for that type of flight.

When unmanned, an explosive device is placed in the QF-4 to destroy the aircraft if it becomes uncontrollable.

The aircraft is equipped to carry electronic and infrared countermeasures to fully evaluate fighters and weapons flown and fired against it. Full-scale drone aircraft can be flown totally by computer using the Gulf Range Drone Control System, or controlled manually during takeoff and landing using a mobile control station located at the drone runway. As a safety precaution, a chase plane trails the drone during critical periods of flight.

The F-4 was the primary fighter-bomber aircraft in the U.S. Air Force throughout the 1960s and 1970s. F-4s also flew reconnaissance and “Wild Weasel” anti-aircraft missile suppression missions and saw considerable action in Operation Desert Storm. Production of the F-4 ended in 1979.

The drone fleet is operated and maintained by the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron, located at Tyndall Air Force Base. The squadron is a subordinate unit of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall. The 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group reports to the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base. – Scott Jackson