Thank you, Mr. Chairman [Bob Stump], Congressman Skelton, members of this Committee. I know how strongly this committee has supported the needs of our men and women in uniform to have adequate training, and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss that issue with you today. I’m here largely because, until Secretary England was confirmed at the end of May, I had the principal responsibility for Secretary [of Defense] Rumsfeld of dealing with this issue. So I would like to make some introductory comments before Secretary [of the Navy Gordon] England and [Chief of Naval Operations] Admiral Clark and [Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps] General Williams give more detailed testimony on this decision.
Following careful consideration and consultation with military leaders, Secretary England made a decision concerning the way ahead on Vieques. On June 15th, he announced publicly his decision that the Navy plans to discontinue training on the Vieques range in May of 2003. It is a decision that Secretary Rumsfeld and I fully support.
While Secretary England will explain the detailed reasoning that led to his decision, let me briefly outline six broad considerations that put this issue in context.
First and foremost is the need to ensure that our sailors and Marines—indeed all of our forces—are properly trained to meet any situation their duty may call for, including actual combat. As a matter of fact, the carrier battle groups that train at Vieques frequently find themselves shortly afterwards flying combat missions over Iraq.
Mr. Chairman, you have emphasized the importance, and I quote you, "of realistic training to protect the lives of American service members." Let me assure you that protecting the lives of the men and women who wear our nation’s uniform is one of our most fundamental concerns, one that we well understand and fully appreciate.
However, a second inescapable fact guiding our decision-making is the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001. That Act, passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Clinton on October 30th of last year, requires that training on Vieques beyond May of 2003 will be determined by a vote of the residents of Vieques. I am frankly surprised that so much of the commentary I have read on this issue in recent weeks fails even to mention this law or the fact that the Navy would not be able to train on Vieques beyond May of 2003 unless it received a positive vote from the residents of that island, residents who have, so far, expressed strong sentiments to the contrary.
In signing this Act into law, President Clinton said, and I quote, "Residents will determine through a referendum whether there will be any training at Vieques beyond that which is critical to the readiness of the Navy and Marine Corps to conduct at Vieques," unquote. However, in the next sentence, he then went on to define, as the law effectively defines, critical training to be only, and I quote again, "training with non-explosive ordnance for no more than 90 days per year through May 1, 2003," unquote. In other words, President Clinton declared, consistent with the law he was signing and with the compromise that was earlier mentioned that had been carefully and agonizingly worked out, that training beyond 2003 was not critical for the Navy and Marine Corps. One can dispute that conclusion, but there is no disputing the fact that the law leaves the decision on Navy and Marine Corps training on Vieques to the residents of that island.
Third, the best available evidence strongly, indeed overwhelmingly, suggests the citizens of Vieques would probably vote for the Navy’s departure from Vieques in 2003. Indeed, in the last gubernatorial election last November, 66 percent of the voters on Vieques voted for the two candidates who wanted the Navy out of Vieques, not by 2003, but within 60 days or sooner.
The remaining 34 percent of the voters supported the candidate who ran on a platform of getting the Navy out by referendum by May of 2003—a candidate, by the way, who subsequently demanded that the Navy leave before President Clinton left office.
Fourth, dictating national security decisions by local referendum is fundamentally flawed public policy. Win or lose on the Vieques referendum, it is a mistake to allow local elections to dictate essential matters of national security.
Fifth, given the near-certainty that we will be voted out of Vieques, which would ensure our departure by May 2003, we must direct maximum thought and energy into developing alternate places and methods of training so that we can avoid training degradation beyond that period. Failure to confront the reality of Vieques and prolonging uncertainty over the outcome only reduces our chances of being prepared for the nearly-inevitable future.
Sixth, continued training at Vieques until May of 2003 is critical for our sailors and Marines. For that reason, we need to find a way to lower the political temperature so that effective training can take place during this critical transitional period.
Secretary England, who answered the President’s call to serve our country and our Armed Forces, brings to his position extensive experience as a defense industry leader. His abilities are surpassed only by his concern for the sailors and Marines who serve us so well.
Secretary England made his decision with one overriding consideration: to do the best possible job of meeting the requirements of the men and women who serve, given the constraints of the situation presented by the compromise reflected in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001.
Secretary England was confronted with a difficult decision immediately upon taking office, and he has done an impressive job dealing with a far-from-ideal situation. His leadership is greatly appreciated by Secretary Rumsfeld and myself and I hope by the members of this committee.
Mr. Chairman, and members of this Committee, we share your concerns, and we look forward to continued efforts to guarantee the combat readiness of our forces through effective training and to provide for the needs of all those who voluntarily defend the liberties we hold so dear. Thank you. I will now turn the microphone over to Secretary England.