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Inhofe Can’t Get The Navy To Answer One Question

Tap Dance Navy Chief Evasive About Island's Use

Inhofe Can’t Get The Navy To Answer One Question

By Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough

February 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Washington Times. All Rights Reserved.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, has devoted a good part his Senate career to improving the military's combat readiness. On no issue has he been more persistent than preserving the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a practice range for Navy carrier battle groups.

But he cannot get the Navy to answer one question: If commanders request it, will the Bush administration let a battle group practice with real ammo on Vieques?

He asked Navy Secretary Gordon England that question repeatedly at a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but never got a "yes" or "no" answer.

Mr. England's reply angered Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, more than it did Mr. Inhofe. "Mr. Secretary," Mr. Bunning said, "if you would have testified before this committee as you have testified in response to Sen. Inhofe during your confirmation hearings, you would have not received my vote at least."

The mistrust on Vieques stems from the fact that the top Marine and Navy officers asked Mr. England to let the carrier USS John Kennedy use real bullets at Vieques before going off to the war on terrorism. The Atlantic Fleet commander decided against sending the Kennedy to Puerto Rico , according to a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.

The Daily Oklahoman

Tap Dance Navy Chief Evasive About Island's Use

February 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newspapers Partnership, LP. All Rights Reserved.

NAVY Secretary Gordon England is in hot water with Sen. Jim Inhofe and other members of the Armed Services Committee.

At a hearing earlier this month, England was asked by Inhofe and others whether he would let fleet commanders use the Navy's live-fire range at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico , to prepare for deployment to the Middle East.

It's a tender issue. The Navy's 50-year use of the range has itself come under criticism from some in Puerto Rico who see it as an intrusion, a threat to islanders' safety and an environmental hazard.

Inhofe, R-Tulsa, noted that under last year's defense authorization bill, the Vieques range may be closed only if the Navy secretary certifies that alternative venues are available to conduct necessary training.

England, who comes from the aerospace industry and never served in the military, denied he told commanders they couldn't use Vieques . He said commanders opted not to use the range because there wasn't enough time before deployment.

Inhofe repeatedly asked England if he would give the go-ahead to use the range in the future, but each time the secretary took evasive action. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a fellow committee member, called the exchange "embarrassing" and said if he'd known in advance England's position on Vieques he wouldn't have voted for the secretary's confirmation.

England's tap dance around Vieques is due, at least in part, to political calculations at higher levels of the Bush administration. There's concern the Navy's continued presence could impact the Hispanic vote in future elections, and the administration has pledged to leave the range in 2003.

No one, including Inhofe, wants to aggravate a voting bloc. But the central issue should be to give U.S. sailors and airmen the best possible training before they go into harm's way.

Inhofe and others believe there's no substitute for live-fire training or for doing it at the Vieques range. No one argues the first point, and so far no other range has been identified that can train our military men and women like they can be trained at Vieques .

Until then, Vieques should be used. It's too bad Secretary England couldn't bring himself to acknowledge that.

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