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Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA

Battle Group Needs Vieques Training, Sailors Not Ready To Deploy Without It, Vice Admiral Says


March 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

Despite his efforts to provide realistic training for the next group of ships and sailors to deploy overseas, the admiral responsible for certifying their fitness says the carrier Enterprise battle group will not be as ready as "they could, or should be."

That's because the Navy and Marine Corps again have been denied the use of a bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , said Vice Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who is aboard his flagship Mount Whitney today trying to find alternative training sites off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts that will work.

The 15-ship Enterprise battle group and Kearsarge amphibious ready group, which will deploy in late April to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, are not being allowed to train with live or inert ordnance on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

The Bush administration canceled plans earlier this month for bombing and shelling exercises on the practice range and opened new discussions with Puerto Rican officials over the range's future, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced.

"Obviously, Vieques continues to be a very important national security asset to us, and we have worked hard to work around not having it for Enterprise," Mullen said Thursday just before sailing out of Norfolk to meet the battle group.

"In fact, if you look at recent battle groups, she is the first one in a while, since Eisenhower in 1999, that hasn't had any training on Vieques ."

He described Vieques as "the place that brings it all together, and there isn't any place else like that."

Vieques allows the Navy and Marine Corps to practice combined arms training, which involves gunfire support from the ships, air-to- ground support from planes and Marine artillery.

Without it, Mullen finds himself sending the Marines ashore in North Carolina, the aircraft toward practice ranges at Eglin Air Force Base on Florida's Gulf coast and surface ships firing their guns at feature-less spots off Virginia.

"Trying to do that piecemeal, rather than all together, just creates a readiness level that is lower than we could achieve if we had. . . Vieques ," Mullen said.

Use of the 60-year-old range has been hotly contested by Puerto Ricans ever since an April 19, 1999, aircraft bombing accident there killed a security guard.

Vieques is just east of the main island of Puerto Rico and is home to about 9,300 people. Local officials and political activists on both islands claim the Navy's presence has all but killed Vieques ' fishing industry and has severely limited efforts to develop tourism.

Mullen said that the few other bombing ranges the Navy can use simply "doesn't take us to the same level of fidelity that we get using Vieques ."

His staff has focused on the most critical missions the group likely will face on its deployment, he said, "particularly with the air wing, particularly with the air-to-ground piece.

"We've had a lot of combat operations in the past several years, so we try to work the pieces of that as hard as we can, with complex long-range strikes, depending on where we are," he said.

Providing close-in air support to combat troops "is a critical mission for us," he said. "It is a big part of our readiness, and we try to do that with as many air crew and in as many environments as we possibly can.

"That said, it still doesn't get us the kind of training that we would have if we had Vieques .

The Navy has tried substituting some training at overseas facilities in the Mediterranean Sea, while the battle group is en route to the Persian Gulf. But, Mullen said, the window to use those facilities is very small.

If the Navy eventually is forced to leave Vieques , Mullen said he has no easy solution as to what to do next.

"I think we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we did not explore other options. But frankly, any option that I see is long- term and will take a lot of resources, and there is no solid underpinning for them right now, either financially, politically, or in some cases geographically.

"So there is nothing sitting out there that is going to make this better."

Reach Jack Dorsey at jdorsey(AT) or 446-2284.

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