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"An Irreplaceable Training Facility"
House Panel Supports Continued Training at Vieques
By Gordon I Peterson
September 1, 2001
Following the Bush administration's decision in June to discontinue training operations at the Navy ranges on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, in May 2003, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) recommended that Navy and Marine Corps combined-arms training continue there until a suitable alternative is found.
The committee's proposals offer some hope that a bipartisan congressional consensus may be forged to resolve the future of training on Vieques in a way that ensures that the requirement for Navy and Marine Corps combat readiness remains at the forefront of political decisions. As one House aide told Sea Power, "We are looking for a way for Congress to provide the president with an acceptable alternative to remedy the policy and political impasse surrounding Vieques."
The panel's recommendations are contained in its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, which was reported out of committee on I August with a 58-to-1 vote. "The Vieques training range provides an irreplaceable training facility for U.S. military forces," the committee said, "who have used its unique combination of live-fire areas, aerial bombardment ranges, and amphibious landing beaches to reach high levels of readiness in preparation for nearly every conflict since World War II."
The HASC said that it is "concerned" by the Navy's decision to abandon Vieques (Sea Power, August 2001), particularly in view of the fact that the Navy and Marine Corps currently have no options available for replacing the ranges on Vieques. In the committee's view, retaining the Vieques island training facility is "critical to the readiness of U.S. naval forces."
The HASC markup contains several proposed initiatives aimed at ensuring continued access to the ranges on Vieques until an alternative site is found, including provisions to: (a) cancel the public referendum currently planned for November 2001; and (b) require the Navy and Marine Corps to continue training at Vieques until the commandant of the Marine Corps and the chief of naval operations certify that an equal or superior location for training exists and is available for use.
The HASC also has proposed that if an acceptable alternative training site is found and the Vieques range is closed, all land on Vieques currently owned by the Navy be retained by the Department of Defense (DOD) for use in the event of national emergency. Under this scenario, DOD would manage the Navy's ranges in cooperation with the Department of the Interior.
"A Fundamentally Bad Idea"
Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England's directive that Navy and Marine Corps training continue on Vieques until the May 2003 pullout date drew a mixed reaction. Some opponents of the Navy's presence seek an immediate halt to training and an earlier withdrawal.
England's concern about the precedent of using a public referendum to determine the future of critical training directly related to military readiness struck a resonant chord with many defense-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however.
"The referendum is fundamentally a bad idea," Rep. James V. Hansen (R-- Utah) told Sea Power. "Policy decisions directly affecting our country's national security should not be dictated by individual communities acting solely on the basis of their concerns over local issues. If we abandon our ranges on Vieques, the Navy and Marine Corps need an alternate location that offers equivalent opportunities for the full range of combined-arms training."
England has emphasized, however, that a one-for-one training replacement for Vieques may not be possible and is not what he envisions. At a Pentagon press briefing on 15 June, he said that a combination of existing facilities, coupled with improved computer simulation, might be needed to offset the loss of the ranges in the Navy's Puerto Rico operating area.
Testifying before the HASC on 27 June about Vieques training, England noted that a Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) study completed in 2000 "clearly argues that a combination of several existing ranges appears promising to accommodate the various Vieques training events." During the same hearing England told Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) that the Navy is not seeking to replicate Vieques in its study of training alternatives.
Also testifying before the committee were Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. Michael J. Williams, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
England told the HASC that he does not believe effective training could or should continue on Vieques "by decree," particularly given the deep-rooted problems and hostile public environment that now exist there. In England's judgment, continuing training on Vieques beyond 2003 is not a viable option. "After reviewing the situation," he said, "it was obvious to me that there was no fully satisfactory solution to Vieques."
CNA, building on its August 2000 study, has been directed by England to conduct a "panel of experts" review of future training for the Department of the Navy that will consider potential training facilities, sites, and methods to find effective near-term and future alternatives to Vieques. CNA selected retired Navy Adm. Leighton W. Smith Jr. and retired Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm to co-chair the study group.
DOD announced in July that the CNA effort, which will include a group of retired senior military officers and analysts, will address three primary training requirements: (a) the delivery of air-to-ground ordnance; (b) amphibious operations; and (c) naval surface fire support. The study will expand the focus of CNA's 2000 study to include military expertise, technology issues, future weapons system requirements, cost factors, and environmental constraints.
A groundswell of political and public opposition quickly arose in Texas earlier this summer when word spread that the Navy may be interested in identifying alternative training sites along the Gulf Coast, obliging the Navy to quickly drop that possible option. Existing military facilities in North and South Carolina may emerge as the top candidates for relocating U.S. Atlantic Fleet live-- fire training from Vieques.
One congressional source close to the issue told Sea Power that the HASC would like to see the CNA study produce a comparative analysis of training-- site alternatives. HASC members are said to be interested in such relocation factors as the effect on combat readiness, land costs, schedules, regulatory requirements, environmental assessments, and the impact on Navy steaming and flying hours.
If the CNA study does not develop such a comparison, the Department of the Navy may be required to submit a report to Congress not only to provide this information but also to assess the impact that relocating training from Vieques will have on Navy facilities at Roosevelt Road, Puerto Rico.
In July, nearly 5,000 voters on Vieques cast ballots in a nonbinding referendum on the future of the Navy's training ranges; 68 percent supported an end to training and the Navy's withdrawal. Asked to comment on the president's reaction, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters on 30 July that President Bush accepted the Department of the Navy's recommendation to relocate by 2003; but Fleischer also emphasized the need, though, for continued effective training. "It's important to make certain that our military is trained until an alternative location is found," he said.
The Orchestration Of Supporting Arms
Navy and Marine Corps officials have repeatedly described the ranges at Vieques as the "crown jewel" of training facilities because it is the one location in the Atlantic area of operations where a battalion-size Marine force can train with unimpeded support from aircraft and surface combatant warships under live-fire conditions.
During June's HASC hearing, the Marine Corps seemed to some observers to be at least partially backing away from the position that such training must be conducted at one location. Williams reaffirmed the need for the capability that Vieques provides, but stressed that the Marine Corps would work hard with England to find "a way, a place, or a series of places" to train. "It's the orchestration of supporting arms that makes Vieques so critical to us," he said.
Clark told the HASC that the Navy needs Vieques and the capability it brings to naval forces. Until such time as a suitable alternative is identified, Clark said, Navy forces will continue to be deployed at less desirable readiness levels. "We can work around and get our troops to a level that we can deploy them, but it isn't the level that we believe is the best," he said.
Sea-service combat leaders past and present have consistently emphasized the importance to the Navy and Marine Corps of having a single location to practice the full spectrum of naval and amphibious warfare operations. "It's imperative that the Navy and Marine Corps have a single site for combined-arms training such as we have at Vieques," retired Rear Adm. Phillip D. Smith, the president of the Association of Naval Aviation, told Sea Power.
"The site must enable our young Sailors and Marines to experience combat-realistic conditions," he added. "They must be exposed to live-firing exercises, including close air support. Without dynamic real-world combined-arms training these Sailors and Marines might go in harm's way fatally unprepared."
One senior Navy officer emphasized that computer-based simulation, while a valuable training supplement, is not a substitute for live-fire combat training. "Simulation is a great tool for nasal forces, but it does not actually replace live-fire and tactical training at sea and ashore," he said. "For today's complex battlespace, computer-based simulations prepare you to get the most out of the training when you are actually `hands-- on' in the cockpit, on the bridge, or at the periscope."
Asked what advice, based on his own combat experience, he would offer to the CNA study group, this same officer emphasized the requirement for adequate space at sea and ashore for maneuver and a location that would enable operational commanders to exercise all of the processes involved in actual combat operations.
"You need a range where you can execute your tactics and drop or fire your ordnance safely and under conditions that approximate actual combat to the greatest degree possible. If you go into a study with training requirements defined properly, you'll be able to determine what kind of alternatives are appropriate and suitable," he said.
Reasonable assurances of acceptable weather also are important so that training is not delayed repeatedly because of low visibility or high sea states. The Navy's use of alternative training ranges in Scotland in 2000, for example, proved inadequate when it was revealed that the weather at those ranges is inclement almost 90 percent of the year.
In addition to their paramount concern-the effect on combat readiness of abandoning facilities on Vieques if no suitable single alternative exists-lawmakers on Capitol Hill also worry about the financial implications. The cost of replacing the more than $1 billion invested through the years in the Navy facilities in the Puerto Rican operating area is a major consideration.
"Discounting the question if a single replacement site for Vieques can be found, how we will pay for it will be a major issue in today's budget climate," one congressional aide told Sea Power.
During the past two years of highly politicized public debate surrounding the use of Navy ranges at Vieques, several frequently quoted commentators have dismissed outright the Navy's official position that it needs Vieques to practice the full spectrum of combat operations. In a Newsday column in August, for example, retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., former vice president of the Center for Defense Information, criticized the Navy for seeking to rehearse amphibious assaults on Vieques under live-fire conditions. "The sands of Iwo Jima ran red with the blood of heroic Marines storming ashore, but that certainly is not the way conflict will be fought in the foreseeable future," Carroll wrote.
Other equally informed observers, though, mindful that the Marine Corps has adopted a doctrine of operational-- maneuver warfare aimed at avoiding a repetition of the bloody frontal assaults common during World War II, pointed out that U.S. defense and political leaders have a dismal track record in predicting anything about the future with a high degree of accuracy.
The first permanent chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, asserted in 1949 that, in the age of nuclear weapons and jet aircraft, "... large-scale amphibious operations ... will never occur again." One year later, Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur extolled the audacity of the Navy and Marine Corps for their successful amphibious assault on the Korean port city of Inchon. Throughout the post-World War II era, in fact, Marines landing from the sea have frequently been the first U.S. combat forces on the ground when U.S. lives or interests have been threatened around the world. That stark reality has not changed much since the Inchon landing of more than half a century ago.
Those opposed to a pullout from Vieques point out that realistic combat training is not an academic exercise for today's Navy and Marine Corps-it is a real-world requirement. Every carrier battle group that has deployed overseas during the past two years has conducted actual combat operations-most recently the USS Enterprise Carrier Battle Group, in August, against Iraqi command-and-control facilities.
Political discussions surrounding the future of the Navy training facilities on Vieques will resume shortly after Congress returns from its summer recess.
During the HASC's June hearing, Rep. Bob Simmons (R-Conn.), a retired Army officer and Vietnam combat veteran, extracted a pledge from Clark and Williams that they would make every effort to guarantee that the alternatives identified for Vieques would provide effective and realistic training-and that they would report back to the committee if it appears that that goal will not be achieved.
As of late August it seemed certain that, before supporting a departure from the Puerto Rican island, key members of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will measure any alternative to Vieques on its ability to provide realistic combined-arms training for Sailors and Marines under live-- fire conditions.