Bombing range being retooled for new aircraft

U.S. Air Force photo: Airman 1st Class Evelyn Chavez An MC-130W Combat Spear drops a Container Release System load at Melrose Air Force Range during a training exercise in September. The drops are done at least once a week to prepare aircrews for resupply missions in areas that have no airfields.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

It’s 25 miles from Cannon Air Force Base, but the Melrose Air Force Range is never out of sight or out of mind for the future of the base and Air Force Special Operations Command.

“It’s not just a bombing range,” said Lt. Col. Paul Caltagirone, deputy group commander for the 27th Special Operations Group at Cannon.

“Melrose is the crown jewel of the western home of the air commandos.”

The 66,010-acre range, listed as a top asset when local leaders argued against Cannon’s closure in 2005, will help the Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing.

The key purpose of the range for Special Operations, Caltagirone said, is to ready training crews for air-to-ground combat.

“The only gunships the Air Force owns are in the AFSOC inventory — the AC-130Hs and the AC-130U’s,” Caltagirone said. “Both of these platforms are extremely busy in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom supporting forces on the ground in the roles they provide, which is persistent overhead accurate lethal firepower.

“Their ability to stay on target for long periods of time and deliver a high volume of firepower makes them extraordinarly valuable to the guys on the ground.”

Cannon will be getting eight AC-130Hs this summer, and 15 to 20 Attack Cargo aircraft — the exact number still not yet determined — over the next five years. Also, an undetermined number of CV-22s Osprey tiltrotor aircraft will be coming later this year.

The Air Force already provides quality with the gunships, Caltagirone said, and the emphasis of the new missions at Cannon is quantity.

“We’re trying to grow our capability here at Cannon,” Caltagirone said, “both with the AC-130H and the future AC-X to be determined, so we provide more assets to not only special operations, but conventional forces on the ground — that close-in, lethal, accurate, consistent firepower that only a gunship can deliver.”

He said additions planned for the range include:

• Two impact zones — named Jockey and Spirit — approved for certain types of weapons firings.

• Drop zones for troops and cargo for the CV-22s and C-130s that will be flying at Cannon.

• A landing zone — at least one, but possibly two, for C-130s, CV-22s and small aircraft. The zones would re-create true blacked-out conditions, and possibly unpaved surface landings.

Ground training won’t be left out, however.

“We’re building a MOUT site, which stands for military operations and urban terrain,” Caltagirone said. “It’s basically a city you build out in the middle of nowhere. You bring in teams and they’re allowed to train in a close-quarters urban environment — with overhead gunship support. … They can go block-by-block in this city that’s built out there. We’re going to attract a lot of small tactical teams out in that regard.”

Other ground training items planned include a sniper range and small arms range, he said.

The sizes of these items, according to 27th Special Operations Support Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Corey Toby, are to be determined when the wing’s Comprehensive Range Plan (CRP) is approved.

Having these items at Melrose saves the military on fuel costs. But Caltagirone said the biggest benefit is operational tempo.

“We are so in demand forward at all times that our crews spend a good portion of their times in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom,” Caltagirone said. “When they’re at home and, specifically, when they’re at home at Cannon Air Force Base, we would like to do the training at home so they can still be home at night with their families, as opposed to traveling to other ranges around the country.”

The assets, Caltagirone said, would equal a “world-class training environment” for Navy Seals and special operations forces for the Army and Marines.

“Theoretically, we could have somewhere between 50 and 100 joint brethren coming out, but that would be a high number,” he said.

“We’d be aiming for a single team. Fifteen to 20 is realistic, but you could get higher than that, around 50, and the range would easily support that.”

All of the planned items fit in the current land constraints of Melrose Air Force Range, Caltagirone said.