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OPINION - Vieques
May 2, 2001
It seems the government of Puerto Rico is making some noise - about noise.
Puerto Rican officials recently filed a lawsuit to stop the Navy from resuming bombing practices on the nearby island of Vieques . Their argument: The drills violate anti-noise laws, including the 1972 federal Noise Control Act, and a brand-new Puerto Rican law that limits noises over beaches and surrounding waters.
It's a clever tactic by the U.S. territory, which has been trying to kick the Navy out for years. But this debate is about much more than peace and quiet on Vieques , an island 10 miles off the Puerto Rican coast. It's about maintaining the readiness levels of U.S. forces - which are already dangerously low - and preserving our ability to keep peace in the world.
If this appears a bit overstated, then consider a few of the reasons the Navy has used Vieques as a training area for more than six decades.
For one, it's crucial to U.S. military operations. It's the only training area in the entire Atlantic Ocean where the Navy and Marines can engage in land, air and sea exercises that closely simulate combat. That makes it the "crown jewel" and the "world standard" of military training areas, according to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson.
In addition, Vieques ' size makes it ideal for moving Marines and firing guns from ships and planes without harming the island's 9,300 citizens, who live more than eight miles away from the bombing area. One civilian, tragically, did die when a U.S. fighter pilot mistook a watchtower - where the civilian was standing guard - for a target. However, that death two years ago is the only one logged during more than 60 years of training at Vieques .
The island also is outside commercial airline routes, so fighter pilots can fly at the same altitudes they would reach in combat. And ships can sail in the deep water around Vieques to fire at targets, while avoiding commercial shipping lanes.
Yet another advantage is that Vieques is close to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico , which employs 2,000 civilians. Roosevelt Roads is the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, a main link between the U.S. Navy and the navies of South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The base there is used for drug-fighting operations, humanitarian missions and navy-to-navy exercises, but the Navy would likely leave Roosevelt Roads if it cannot train at Vieques .
Nevertheless, the concerns of the citizens of Puerto Rico shouldn't be ignored. There are several ways President Bush can show Puerto Rico that the Navy's presence at Vieques benefits everyone.
He can start by assuring the island's residents that Washington takes their concerns seriously, and that the Defense Department will continue studying the impact of training exercise on Vieques . One recent review conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found no connection between the bombing drills and health problems that some say are caused by the staged explosions.
President Bush can also assure residents that training exercises will occur only at predictable times and that the Navy will take extra measures to protect them.
In addition, the president should insist that the Navy make greater efforts to ensure long-term economic growth on the island. While the Navy has supported more than 20 economic development programs on Vieques over the past two decades, more can be done to help residents improve manufacturing, job training and tourism.
However, the president must make clear that global security and stability requires the Navy and the Marines to continue their training exercises at Vieques .
President Bush must balance the concerns of the people of Vieques with his concerns over the readiness of the U.S. armed forces. If the Navy leaves, the people of Vieques and many other Puerto Rican citizens would lose a valuable ally in improving their economic viability. And Americans would lose a training area that assures the quality of our nation's fighting forces. That's a high price - and it's worth making some noise about.
-Jack Spencer is a defense policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
JOHN R. FISHER
May 1, 2001
The recent comments by Gov. Pataki favoring an end to Navy and Marine Corps combined-arms, live-fire training at the Atlantic FleetWeapons Facility in Vieques , Puerto Rico , puts young Americans at risk.
The background events are well known. A civilian security guard was killed in an accident at the facility in April 1999. He was the first civilian to die on the range in over 50 years. Since then, use of the range by the services has been limited. Politicians like the governor and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have jumped on the bandwagon favoring an end to military use of the training range.
Imagine, by way of an example, the New York Giants getting ready for a game. The coach divides up the team for practice by position. Quarterbacks and running backs go to one field, linemen to another, kickers and special teams to a third, etc. They sharpen their skills as much as possible, but they face a perhaps insurmountable problem: The coach does not bring these separate units to play together until the day of the game itself. So team units that should be working together to execute complex plays requiring a high degree of coordination will be ineffective and an easy pushover for the opposition. How would such a coach be tolerated? Unfortunately, Gov. Pataki and others are advocating a similar strategy for our Navy and Marine Corps.
A presidential panel reviewing the need for combined-arms, live- fire training concluded that such training is available only at Vieques and "is vital to preparing deploying forces for possible combat." Without such training, the panel also said, "the risk to personnel is increased."
No action should ever be taken that jeopardizes U.S. combat readiness and endangers the lives of the young men and women serving in our nation's armed forces. This should be particularly evident in an era in which budgets of the nation's armed forces have been reduced year after year, in which the services' peacetime operating tempo is the highest in history, and in which there is substantial and demonstrable evidence that U.S. military readiness already has been reduced to an unacceptable level.
There is only one absolute truth involved. The loyal and disciplined young soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen who put their lives at risk every day have the right to expect similar loyalty in return from their country, from the American people and from their political leaders. If political leadership -- the coach -- lets the team down by making it impossible for the players to hone their skills to the highest degree possible, then the team is guaranteed to lose the game.
Only live-fire training is not a game, and real lives are at stake.
-John R. Fisher is a retired Navy admiral and president of the Navy League of the United States, based in Arlington, Va.