Expect to see more Air Force personnel visiting the Carrabelle waterfront in the months ahead, as they examine how best to engineer and manage a remote instrumentation site to assist in Eglin Air Force Base’s testing capabilities over the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The project, called the “2017 Gulf Range Expansion Systems Engineering for Remote Instrumentation Site” was granted $235,000 in funding last week from the state program created about a decade ago to better position Florida’s military installations and their surrounding communities within the turbulent world of nationwide defense cutbacks.
The funds, the lion’s share of $400,000 awarded through the Florida Defense Support Task Force Grant Program, will go to a joint venture, Reliance Test and Technology, which is the prime contractor that does operation and maintenance for Eglin’s test ranges. InDyne, Inc. owns three-quarters of RTT, which also includes AECOM as a partner.
James R. Heald, RTT’s vice president for strategic programs, described the project as “a back to the future thing” in the sense that the proposed state-of-the-art remote instrumentation site is in keeping with the radar units that once flourished along the Gulf Coast as far south as the Keys.
“There used to be instrumentation sites all the way down the coastline. Currently with the instrumentation we have, the further east we have is at Cape San Blas,” he said. “Out over the water in the Big Bend there used to be a bunch of towers out there.”
“We need instrumentation that can handle the newest weapons that we have today and that we’re envisioning for the future,” said Heald. “They fly longer and longer and we’re trying to protect our pilots. We try to drop it (ordnance) from as far away as possible. That protects our troops and we need to make sure weapons work properly.
“We’re basically getting very congested within the first 50 miles of coastline near Eglin.” Heald said. “We want to be able to do is put new instrumentation out further to the east and down the coastline so we can use more of Eglin range air space to be able to collect data.”
Heald said the Air Force is in talks with the Coast Guard for a suitable site, possibly at or near the waterfront site at the end of Marine Street here the cutter Seahawk used to dock.
“It’s more than likely to be at the old Coast Guard station in Carrabelle. The Air Force hasn’t concluded negotiations with the Coast Guard,” he said. “We want to put a couple radars, couple telemetry antennas, and do frequency control and analysis so we know what other emissions going down.
The likely candidate is close to the shoreline. It’s already government owned piece of land, we don’t have to go purchase things.” Heald said.
A key benefit to the project, and one which helped the grant application gain the support it did, could accrue to Franklin County from the fiber optic lines being proposed.
“As was previously seen when Eglin put fiber on the land ranges, a partnership with Okaloosa County allowed the establishment and upgrade of the Okaloosa County Emergency Operations Center on the grounds of the Northwest Florida State College,” Heald wrote in the grant application. “This synergistic approach in funding and laying fiber allowed a much less expensive solution to both the Air Force and Okaloosa County.
“There is a potential that Franklin County would benefit from the fiber extension from Cape San Blas to Carrabelle. As the Air Force continues to expand the range in subsequent increments of the GRE (Gulf Range Expansion), there is potential for other counties to also benefit from a partnering relationship,” read the grant.
“We want to put fiber in,” he said. “There’s so much data now we you can’t afford to run it over copper wire or do it with microwave. That’s where Franklin County could get some benefit.”
The grant application says upgrades include “mobile/transportable radar systems for precise position tracking, telemetry systems to collect the test and training data, frequency monitoring systems, command destruct systems, and communications systems to transport the data back to Eglin, all of which need to be protected with information security.”
The application says a recent study conducted by the 96th Test Wing Scheduling Office determined that if a remote instrumentation site was available in the Carrabelle area, up to 80 additional missions per year could have been scheduled.
“It is the desire of the Air Force to open a site at Carrabelle as soon as they can to support current needs,” reads the grant. “Each mission that the Air Force cannot support now results in an opportunity loss of $100,000 in revenue for the 96th, with 80 missions equating to $8 million lost revenue annually.”
In order for the site to become fully operational, the Air Force will need funding in the upcoming defense allocation. Right now, Heald said, RTT is waiting on funds to be allocated from the state, and plan to be compelted with its management plan by June 30, 2017.
“This is going to provide specifics so that when federal money shows up we can execute immediately,” he said. “We are chomping at the bit waiting on the state of Florida to send us a draft contract. As soon as that happens we’re going to start executing.”