Live fire training to begin at Stennis

Published 5:28 pm Friday, May 16, 2008

For the past 25 years, naval training in the area of Stennis Space Center has involved use of blank ammunition, but this summer residents should be aware that short-range live rounds will begin being used.

Safety is of the utmost concern, U.S. Navy spokesmen said, as the Western Maneuver Area in the Stennis buffer zone where the Navy’s Special Boat Team 22 trains will use live rounds with bullets that are light in weight, non-metallic and which should shatter on impact with vegetation. The bullets travel a maximum distance of 700 meters. For safety reasons, ample territory has been purchased by the U.S. Navy where training will take place on the Pearl River and Mike’s River, the spokesmen said. Those rivers will remain open to the public when training is not active.

Clearly visible signs will denote areas that residents should avoid during training periods. Times and dates of training periods are available by calling 1-800-327-7135. Live fire training is not expected to begin until mid-summer, said SBT-22 Commanding Officer Cmdr. James A. Emmert.

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Blank round training will continue at the site but will be complimented with Short Range Training Ammunition, which has a range of less than 700 meters. In contrast, a standard .50-caliber round has a range of about four miles, or 7,500 meters. Training areas have been designated as SRTA ranges where only the short-range ammunition will be used. The area is mostly heavily vegetated. The heavy vegetation is expected to further reduce the range of the ammunition, Emmert said.

Range safety boats will be out on the water when training is occurring to ensure no civilians are in the training area during live fire sessions. Unless someone makes a conscious decision to ignore the posted signs they won’t find themselves in the live fire zones, Emmert said.

Projectiles used in the training are non-toxic and will break apart as they impact trees and foliage, he said.

Residents used to the noise of blank fire training should keep in mind that live fire now will be involved. The rounds, while engineered for short distances, still have the capacity to hurt or kill, said Capt. Evin H. Thompson, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 4.

“The last thing I want to do is cause injury to anybody,” Thompson said.

Special Boat Team 22 consists of personnel who are Special Warfare Combat-Craft Crewmen. He said contrary to popular belief, Navy SEALs are not trained at Stennis, but SWCC personnel are trained there. Emmert, Thompson and about four other sailors on site are, or were, SEALs, however.

Even though SWCC personnel are not internationally known as are the SEALs, they are highly screened, trained and trusted.

“If a river runs through it, we’re probably your guys if something needs taking care of,” Emmert said. “Think of them as helicopter gunship pilots on water.”

The $1.4 million water craft on which SWCC personnel train carries an arsenal of firepower, such as a .50-caliber M2HB machinegun or a 40mm MK-19 cannon, at any of the five weapon stations on board, Emmert said. While the boats are not heavily armored, they are fast, maneuverable, and most missions take place at night.

“We rely on the cover of darkness to keep us safe,” Emmert said.

Thompson said the boats are manufactured on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not far from Stennis.

SWCC primary missions include insertion or extraction of Special Operations Forces such as SEALs, gunfire support, reconnaissance or surveillance, combat search and rescue, personnel recovery and non-combat evacuations, Emmert said.

The 3,500-acre training facility has been approved to handle to 257 active duty military personnel and 21 civilians by October 2009, though it may take a few years to reach those numbers, Emmert said. The Stennis training area mirrors riverine areas where the sailors might be deployed, such as Southeast Asia and South America. Recently, however, most of the unit’s deployment time has been spent in Afghanistan.

All SWCC personnel are trained in medical first aid, craft troubleshooting, communications, weapons, intelligence and the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs prepare SWCC personnel for possible trouble around riverine curves.

Implementation of live fire at the Stennis training facility will increase the amount of local training time, giving personnel more time with their families, Emmert said.