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

Naval Institute's Yearly Exposition Takes On New Sense Of Immediacy


October 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

For the past five years, their purpose for gathering seemed merely academic.

Men and women, active duty and retired, assembled every fall to wander exhibit booths and sit in on discussion panels where acronyms flowed like alphabet soup.

They debated the fine points of fleet and aircraft readiness and ogled gadgets that promised to revolutionize the 21st century's battlefronts.

Wednesday at the Virginia Beach Pavilion Conference Center, the U.S. Naval Institute's Warfare Exposition and Symposium had a much different feel.

Asymmetric warfare was no longer an arcane concept to be played out in war games. It had been defined for civilians on Sept. 11 in New York and at the Pentagon: A few cunning men willing to surrender their lives can do unimagined damage despite our superior military.

"Our response to the attack will be directed against an enemy that's more elusive, devious and inhumane than that confronted by any generation of Americans," said Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet and the keynote speaker, in opening the two-day conference.

"The defeat of this fanatical enemy will take a sustained, coordinated effort on the part of our Navy and our sister services as well as every federal agency and state and local agency in our country.

"But most importantly," the decorated Vietnam War veteran said, "it will require the lasting dedication and support of the American people. If we've learned anything through the years in war and combat it is that we, in a democracy, cannot sustain our military forces, cannot sustain our military readiness and cannot sustain successful military operations without the support of the people.

"And I pray, expect and indeed demand that that support be maintained."

His call was echoed by another Vietnam veteran, James Webb, a former Navy secretary under President Reagan. The Marine-turned- author told an appreciative audience that it was time for America to take the fight to the terrorists and those who allow them to operate in their countries.

Webb said he came to that realization 18 years ago, after a suicide attack killed 241 U.S. military personnel at the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

Shortly after that attack he was speaking at an authors' dinner in Houston. The gist of his comments: "We know who these people are, we know where they train and we know that they understand only one thing and that is the use of force, and we need to go get them."

Webb added, "These people have considered themselves to be at war with us, whether we considered ourselves at war with them or not. If nothing else, I believe that distinction has now been clarified. I certainly hope so."

Natter described how the Navy responded on Sept. 11 and what it showed about the service's role in homeland defense and any retaliation.

Aircraft "armed with air-to-air missiles" left Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach to work off the carrier George Washington near New York City, he said, adding. "They were there ready for combat operations that afternoon."

The Navy can strike the enemy even in Afghanistan, a landlocked country far from any sea, he said.

Tomahawk missiles fired from his ships, he said, can "hit pinpoint targets at great ranges, and I can assure you they can hit any target within Afghanistan."

Most importantly, he said, the Navy provides forces that do not depend on another nation's hosting or approval.

Asked if the attack changed any of his budget priorities, he was blunt: "Yeah, a lot of weapons."

He said his priority is an increase in his inventory of precision guided munitions, to fully stock his carriers and ships. It doesn't make sense, he said, to invest $300 billion in ships and planes and then skimp on the ordnance.

He also sent a message to those who want to close the Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico , where the carrier Kennedy battle group is now training.

Because he has been ordered by President Bush to find a replacement, Natter said, he is looking to relocate the bombing and shelling practice to a number of ranges along the East and Gulf coasts.

But if he leaves Vieques , he said, he will not send ships down to the economically important Roosevelt Roads base on Puerto Rico for any of the training, essentially making the base unnecessary.

"If I don't do this training at Vieques and Puerto Rico, I've got to ask myself do I need Roosevelt Roads," he said, "and the short answer is no."


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