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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Expanded bombing range: Will Farallon de Medinilla be a testing site for Navy’s futuristic weapons?

Beginning June 22, the U.S. Navy will be able to use wider airspace for its training exercises on Farallon de Medinilla, a tiny island located 45 nautical miles north of Saipan. The Federal Aviation Authority has approved the expansion of the military training range to upgrade the island’s capability to support the use of advanced weapons systems.

“This action expands the restricted airspace at Farallon De Medinilla Island by designating a new area, R-7201A, that surrounds the existing R-7201. R-7201A encompasses that airspace between a 3 nautical mile radius and a 12-NM radius of lat. 16°01′04″ N., long. 146°03′31″ E,” according to FAA’s new rule announcement posted on the Federal Register last month.

The new restricted airspace, according to FAA, “provides the required airspace to conduct military training scenarios using air-to-ground ordnance delivery, naval gunfire, lasers and special operations training. This change will accommodate Department of the Navy training involving the use of advanced weapons systems which the current R-7201A airspace does not sufficiently and safely provide”

Farallon de Medinilla, a 1.7-mile-long island, is being leased by the U.S. Navy from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. This uninhabited island is a component of the Mariana Islands Range Complex that supports military exercises that include live and inert bombing, shore bombardment, missile strikes and strafing.

Farallon de Medinilla is home to more than a dozen species of migratory birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act such as the frigatebird, masked booby, brown booby, red-footed booby, sooty tern, brown noddy, black noddy, cattle egret and red-tailed tropicbird among others. In 2002, District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in the District of Columbia — ruling in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit against the Navy for the destruction of wildlife habitat — ordered the U.S. Department of Defense to halt bombing exercises on the island until it complies with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In approving the Navy’s request for airspace restriction modification, the FAA has determined that the training range expansion “does not present the potential for significant impacts to the human environment.”

It’s not clear what sort of “advanced weapon systems” the Navy will bring into Farallon de Medinilla.

Incidentally, the Navy is currently developing three potential new weapons designed to improve the ability of its surface ships to defend themselves against enemy missiles—solid state lasers, the electromagnetic railgun, and the hypervelocity projectile.

“Any one of these new weapon technologies, if successfully developed and deployed, might be regarded as a game changer for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles. If two or three of them are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution,” Ronald O'Rourke, Naval Affairs specialist, wrote in the Congressional Research Service report released on March 17.

The solid state lasers fire a high-energy beam for short-range defense – 1 to 5 miles— against small boats, drones, aircraft, and incoming missiles. The railgun uses electromagnets to push a solid, guidable projectile at over Mach 7 to ranges over 100 nautical miles. The hypervelocity projectile can be fired from existing naval cannons and can reach a range of almost 50 mile.

“Although the Navy in recent years has made considerable progress in developing solid state lasers, railguns, and hypervelocity projectile, a number of significant development challenges remain,” O'Rourke said. “The issue for Congress is whether to approve, reject, or modify the Navy’s funding requests and proposed acquisition strategies for these three potential new weapons.”

Although Navy surface ships have a number of means for defending themselves against anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Rourke said some observers are concerned about the survivability of Navy surface ships in potential combat situations against adversaries. He cited China, for example, which is armed with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and with anti-ship ballistic missiles.

“Concern about this issue has led some observers to conclude that the Navy’s surface fleet in coming years might need to avoid operating in waters that are within range of these weapons, or that the Navy might need to move toward a different fleet architecture that relies less on larger surface ships and more on smaller surface ships and submarines,” Rourke said. “Such changes in Navy operating areas and fleet architecture could substantially affect U.S. military strategy and the composition of the Navy’s shipbuilding expenditures.”

Rourke said overcoming these challenges may require years of additional development work, but ultimate success in overcoming them is not guaranteed.

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