U.S. Proposes Five-Year Phaseout of Vieques Training
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 1999 Puerto Ricans say they want the ships, planes and bombs gone from Vieques Island immediately and permanently, but the Navy and the Marines say training there is vital to maintaining U.S. combat readiness.
That's the crux of the issue pitting Puerto Rican factions against the Pentagon and White House. The president, DoD, the Navy and the Marine Corps offered a compromise Dec. 3 that commonwealth Gov. Pedro Rossello and Vieques Islanders quickly called unacceptable.
"We are committed to rolling up our sleeves and working with the good people of Vieques to ensure that we can continue to use that range," Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, said at a Dec. 3 Pentagon news briefing to explain the compromise offer. "Vieques is important to the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. It's the crown jewel training experience for us. We don't want to lose it, and we're willing to work to keep it.
President Clinton has decided to halt Navy and Marine Corps training at Vieques within five years unless island residents choose to continue the relationship. In a White House statement released Dec. 3, Clinton said he had accepted Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's plan to phase out training at Vieques and develop a comparable long-term replacement.
The plan provides "some breathing space so that the people on the island and the Navy and Marine Corps can proceed in an orderly and mutually respectful fashion," Clinton said.
In the interim, he said, Navy officials would conduct limited training at Vieques starting next spring with the deployment of the USS George Washington Carrier Battle Group and the USS Saipan Amphibious Ready Group, but live- fire exercises will not be included unless the people of Vieques decide differently. Training will only be authorized at Vieques 90 days a year instead of the 180 days previously allowed.
Military officials pledge to develop a timetable to phase out operations, including transferring title of the land to Puerto Rico, beginning with the western quarter of the island. The plan also includes a $40 million community development package to Puerto Rico upon the resumption of training.
Controversy over Vieques erupted in April after two 500- pound bombs dropped by Marine Corps jets hit a range observation tower, killing one person and injuring four others. Protestors occupied the training site and Rossello called for an immediate halt to live-fire training on the 21-mile-long island, which is home to 9,300 people.
"I believe our plan will do so in a constructive manner," Clinton said. "At the same time, as commander-in-chief, I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if they have not been adequately trained."
The USS Eisenhower Carrier Battle Group and the USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, originally scheduled to train at Vieques this month, are now slated to go elsewhere. Johnson noted the training in the alternative plan would not be as good as at Vieques, but it would bring the forces to a satisfactory readiness state before they reach station in the Persian Gulf.
The officials said the ships will conduct training operations off Florida, North Carolina and Virginia; take naval gunfire practice off Cape Wrath, Scotland, en route to the Mediterranean; and will arrange for other training in the Mediterranean.
The plan is the basis for a reasonable compromise, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Dec. 3 en route to Washington from Europe. It's an opportunity to defuse tensions and to demonstrate the Navy intends to be a good steward, he said. It also provides "a more rational and reasonable environment for debate and discussion," he added.
"This will defuse the issue for the moment and allow the Navy to work around the Eisenhower deployment." Cohen said. "It will also satisfy my concern, and the president's concern, that the men and women on the Eisenhower battle group be fully capable of carrying out their mission. I think we can accomplish this in the short term, and in the long term, we'll set up a series of discussions with representatives of Puerto Rico beginning within the next couple weeks."
Cohen categorically denied allegations that domestic political considerations influenced the president's decision. "I am satisfied -- having dealt with the president for the past three years -- when it comes to national security, he has never taken anything but our military's interest to heart," he said. "I would not in any way lend any credence to those kinds of allegations."
The Atlantic Fleet has trained at Vieques since 1941. Other officials at the Pentagon briefing who addressed the importance of training on the island included Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones, and Rudy DeLeon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Vieques provides "the most vigorous and realistic training that allows us to certify our forces as combat-ready," Danzig said. The need to ensure combat readiness is not an "abstract requirement," he stressed. "Our sailors and Marines are today flying combat missions over Iraq and were within recent months flying similar missions and launching missiles in the Balkans."
"This unique facility, in the only location in the Atlantic where realistic multidimensional training can be conducted, has been safely operated for 58 years without a single off- range accident," Danzig said.
The tragic bombing accident earlier this year stemmed from an "incorrectly selected target," he added. Danzig said Navy officials and DoD panel members who looked into the accident reached two conclusions: The Navy needs to repair relations with the people of Vieques and to continue training on Vieques.
The Eisenhower and the Wasp task forces will not be combat- ready when they leave Norfolk for the Gulf, but they will receive sufficient live-fire training before they are put into combat, according to Johnson.
"They will receive good training,” he said. “We have every confidence in them, but we owe them the graduation level exercise and they will receive that in the forward theater before we would ever commit them to combat."
Jones noted that the embarked Marines receive live-fire training at their home stations. "What we will have to do forward, in theater, is the integration piece with the amphibious ready group and the carrier battle group," he said. "Also, we have a Marine squadron embarked as part of the carrier air wing, and they will have to come up to speed with their Navy counterparts."
DeLeon stressed that the problems on Vieques did not occur overnight. "They are the product of several years and many issues, and the solution will not be accomplished overnight. But this is a starting point. This continues the dialogue that I think has already started, that has been constructive and that will put us on the right track."