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The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

Beyond Vieques

The Navy, Which Fought For Years To Defend Its Training On A Small Puerto Rican Island, Now Says Losing This Area Could Be A Blessing In Disguise. Advances In Technology, It Says, Should Help To More Than Make Up For The Loss Of The Island


August 24, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

For more than half a century, the Navy couldn't fathom life without Vieques.

The tiny Puerto Rican island was considered the perfect training range. Since World War II, nearly every East Coast carrier battle group had used it for pre-deployment bombing and gunnery practice.

But use of the island grew controversial, and the Navy finally abandoned Vieques earlier this year.

When the Enterprise sails from Norfolk later this week, it will be the first Atlantic Fleet carrier to prepare for deployment since Vieques was taken off the itinerary. And the Navy, which fought for years to defend its training there, now says losing Vieques could be a blessing in disguise.

In plotting a post-Vieques course, the Navy came up with a plan that could mean big savings in time and money, and provide better training. By using a hybrid lineup of 12 existing military ranges along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico, Navy ships and planes will have more training options and will stay closer to home.

The Enterprise strike group can expect:

  • A shorter trip. Round-trip from Norfolk to Jacksonville, Fla., which likely will be the farthest point for the Enterprise training, is almost 2,000 miles shorter than round-trip to Vieques. That could save up to eight days of transit time.
  • Better targets for ship gunners. The new gunnery ranges offer a wider variety of targets, better realism and more space than Vieques.
  • More air time for carrier planes. Bombing ranges are much larger and should give aircraft crews considerably more flight time.

What the Navy won't have is a one-stop training facility that fits all. With Vieques, the military was able to conduct live-fire exercises for nearly every aspect of naval and Marine Corps combat.

But Navy officials say that advances in technology should help to more than make up for the loss of Vieques. Remote-controlled craft will pull targets across the water at 50 mph, and a virtual- reality system can create detailed pseudo-targets on the surface of the ocean.

From the Navy's perspective, Vieques was the perfect place for battle group training.

Known as the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, the Puerto Rican facility actually consisted of four ranges, including deep-water tracking ranges equipped with sensors, instrumentation and communications.

It was the Navy's premier training range for the simultaneous use of gunnery, missile firing, aircraft bombing, electronic warfare and underwater operations - all coordinated with scoring and recording.

The bombing and gunnery range on Vieques' uninhabited east side had an impact area of 900 acres - a fraction of the 21-mile-long island. But protests from island residents grew over the years, coming to a head in 1999 when a civilian security guard was killed by an errant bomb from a Marine Corps jet during a training mission.

That incident - added to allegations of pollution, fish kills and high cancer rates for island residents - finally chased the Navy away. In 2001, U.S. officials announced they would no longer use the island as of May 1, 2003.

For years, the Navy had insisted it couldn't do without Vieques. Officials maintained that no other place on the Atlantic seaboard was suitable for live-fire gunnery exercises.

But the Navy had been looking for a replacement site since at least 2000, when it asked the Center for Naval Analyses to examine alternatives to Vieques. The CNA, an Alexandria-based federally funded research and development corporation, considered a database of 434 locations, including 268 existing ranges and 166 undeveloped ranges along the East Coast, the Caribbean, Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.

In the end, the CNA came to the same conclusion as the Navy: No single range had all the assets of Vieques. But the CNA report did identify several U.S.-based ranges that had the potential to replace Vieques.

Using the CNA research, the Navy strung together a series of ranges from Maryland to the Gulf of Mexico that make up its newly designed Training Resource Strategy.

Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, last year took $113 million in funds once used for the U.S. base at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, and applied it toward hardware and contracts that will allow the military to develop the new training strategy.

More than 2,300 employees at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which once managed the Vieques range, were told in April they will be transferred or lose their jobs because of the cutbacks. The base, which had about 4,800 employees, is one of the largest employers in Puerto Rico and injects an estimated $300 million into the economy each year.

Puerto Rico's government applauded the end of the bombing exercises but has urged the Navy not to close the base, saying it is vital economically to the island, where unemployment stands at 12 percent.

Natter did not confirm speculation that the base would close but said the shifting of training funds was more than justified: "We should be doing this anyway, especially with the technology and the better utilization of our existing ranges."

By negotiating a series of contracts with other branches of the military and state officials in Florida, Natter has moved the Navy's live-bombing practice to test ranges at Eglin Air Force Base east of Pensacola, Fla., and the Avon Park and Pinecastle ranges in central Florida.

The Navy plans to conduct only one or two carrier strike group exercises in the Gulf of Mexico each year. It will stay out of the gulf during hurricane season, between June and November, and use Atlantic Coast bases during those periods, Natter said.

"The training will be the same and in many ways better because of advances we have made," Rear Adm. Lindell G. "Yank" Rutherford, commander of Carrier Group Four in Norfolk, said as he prepared to put the Enterprise strike group through its paces.

Under the new plan, ships will use ranges as far north as Patuxent River, Md., and Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore, then move down the coast using sites in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The North Carolina ranges are the Navy-Air Force Dare Range west of the Outer Banks and Marine Corps facilities at Cherry Point.

Of all the ranges in the new plan, Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle is the biggest and most versatile. Located about 40 miles east of Pensacola, Eglin is available for air-to-ground firings and can be used for complex electronic warfare. It also can support exercises combining ship-to-shore firing with ground maneuvers.

One part of Eglin allows aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds.

"We've got nothing like it in Vieques," Natter said. "The only thing we can't do is fire over the highway with naval guns. But we can do amphibious landings there. It's so spread out.

"The Marines have said this is better than anything they've got."

Some final details still are to be worked out with the Florida ranges. At Eglin, the Navy is waiting for the completion of an environmental assessment on requests to close one road and to allow amphibious assaults on a beach. More detailed Environmental Impact Statements are being drafted for requested changes at Avon Park and Pinecastle.

Lt. Scott McIlnay, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman, said no organized citizens' groups have voiced opposition to the Navy's use of the ranges. Most of the ranges are established bombing sites with a long history of military use, he said.

The new training program has a long version and the short one.

The long version has strike groups going around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing ships close to Eglin.

The other option, to be used mainly during hurricane season, calls for ships to stay in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida, and return to coastal Virginia and North Carolina for the final portions of the exercises.

Even with the shorter version, planes can reach Eglin from the East Coast by flying over northern Florida.

On its upcoming exercise, the Enterprise is not expected to go around Key West and into the gulf. But even for strike groups going to Eglin, the round-trip from Norfolk still will be slightly shorter than a voyage to Vieques.

For either option, support aircraft will fly out of Pensacola Naval Air Station. Warships will dock there and at Key West Naval Air Station for supplies, repairs and crew liberty.

While Vieques offered a steady climate that rarely forced the cancellation of exercises, Rutherford said it also had become predictable: There was only one target.

"Now we'll have lots of targets and can operate in each of those for a shorter period of time," he said. "We'll be able to vary them."

Another benefit will be more practice time for the air wings.

Previously, planes were confined to the deck for much of the trip to Puerto Rico. Regulations call for air wings that haven't been "blue water certified" for open ocean operations to have a nearby landing field available, but there are none between the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico.

So for four days down and four days back, the air wing couldn't fly because that certification doesn't come until later in the deployment workups.

Under the new plan, by hugging the East Coast and using inland ranges, the air wing is always within range of an emergency landing field.

Another advantage is that various Air Force units will be nearby and could be more likely to participate in joint exercises as refueling tankers or fighter support, Natter said.

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


THE FUTURE Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is the largest and most versatile of the ranges the Navy plan to use for training.

THE PAST Vieques has been central to Navy combat training for more than 50 years. The MK-76 practice bomb was used during training on Vieques.

A CONTROVERSIAL PRACTICE AREA Since World War II, Vieques served as the Navy's premier training range. Protests from island residents grew over the years, and a fatal accident and other incidents caused the Navy to leave in May 2003.

SOME ADVANTAGES OF THE NEW PLAN When the Enterprise sails from Norfolk later this week, it will be the first Atlantic Fleet carrier to prepare for deployment since Vieques was taken off the itinerary.

What the group can expect:

  • A SHORTER TRIP: Round-trip from Norfolk to Jacksonville, Fla., which likely will be the farthest point for the Enterprise training, is almost 2,000 miles shorter than round-trip to Vieques.
  • BETTER TARGETS FOR SHIP GUNNERS: The new gunnery ranges offer a wider variety of targets, better realism and more space than Vieques.
  • MORE AIR TIME FOR CARRIER PLANES: Bombing ranges are much larger and should give aircraft crews considerably more flight time.

The "Pax River" range is part of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in southern Maryland. Currently used primarily by the Navy for developing and testing aircraft.

Strike group use: Air-dropped mine exercises.

Size: The Complex stretches across 25 miles of shoreline at the mouth of the Patuxent River and also uses a combination of seven restricted air, water and land use areas in the Chesapeake Bay adjacent to the coasts of Delaware and Maryland.

Live ordnance: No

Wallops Island, Va. Located 110 miles north of Norfolk on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Used for rocket launches for NASA tests and by Navy aircraft and surface ship missile tests.

Strike group use: Firing surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles.

Size: Unlimited air space above mid-Atlantic Ocean and restricted waters immediately off shore.

Live ordnance: No

Virginia Capes The Virginia Capes Operating Area is a surface and subsurface area off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. It allows military aircraft to conduct combat maneuvers over the air space of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

Strike group use: Surface, air and sub surface training operations, including gun and missile firings.

Size: Covers a 500-mile radius east from Bodie Island, N.C., and up to 70,000 feet in altitude. Includes mainly water and air space.

Live ordnance: No, but limited air-to-air missile activity is allowed.

Dare County, N.C. Located along the northeastern coast of North Carolina, the Dare County Range serves both Navy and Air Force planes.

Strike group use: Air-to-ground munitions.

Size: 46,000 acres of marsh land, forest and open space.

Live ordnance: No

Camp Lejeune, N.C. Located on and nearby the 153,000-acre Marine base, the ranges primarily serve 47,000 sailors and Marines based there. Military forces from around the world come for bilateral and NATO-sponsored exercises.

Strike group use: Artillery and air-to-ground fire, including rockets, 20-mm to 30-mm canon fire from fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Size: 14 miles of beach.

Live ordnance: Yes.

Cherry Point, N.C. The Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point operates a ground range and four restricted areas off shore.

Strike group use: The offshore ranges are for aircraft maneuvers; the ground range is limited to air-to-ground and close-air support.

Size: Unknown. Extensive marsh, beach, air and water surfaces used at the coast and off shore.

Live ordnance: Yes for both off shore ranges and some ground ranges.

Townsend, Ga. Townsend Bombing Range is 44 miles southwest of Savannah and belongs to the Marine Corps but is operated by the Georgia Air National Guard and is used by all the services.

Strike group use: Air combat and air-to-ground bombing training.

Size: 5,182 acres

Live ordnance: No

Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonville Airspace Complex controls the majority of the airspace warning areas - areas deemed hazardous to the flight of aircraft because of military maneuvers - off the Atlantic coast of the southern states. There are three nearby target complexes: Pinecastle, Rodman and Lake George.

Strike group use: Surface, air and subsurface training operations, including gun and missile firing.

Size: Unknown, but air and water sites cover entire Florida coast in the Atlantic.

Live ordnance: Yes

Pinecastle, Fla. The Pinecastle naval bombing range in the Ocala National Forest is the only place on the East Coast where the Navy can conduct live impact training with ordnance. The Navy has used part of the 382,000- acre forest for target practice for decades under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. It received a 20-year permit extension last year.

Strike group use: Ordnance firings from aircraft.

Size: Nearly 6,000 acres

Live ordnance: Yes

Avon Park, Fla. The Avon Park Air Force range in south-central Florida is northwest of Lake Okeechobee. The Navy uses inert bombs, but is pursuing the use of live ordnance there.

Strike group use: Bombing and gunnery practice.

Size: 106,000 acres

Live ordnance: No

Key West, Fla. Key West has undergone some renovations to its waterfront piers to allow it to host opposition forces, which assume the role of aggressors to the strike group, using ships and aircraft for all levels of training.

Strike group use: Anti submarine, surface and air maneuvers.

Size: 5,851 acres

The Bahamas An Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center near Nassau serves as a support facility for air, surface and submarine underwater exercises. Known as the "tongue of the ocean," its deep waters allow extensive play among submarines and sub hunters.

Strike group use: Surface ships, submarines, sub-hunting helicopters.

Size: A unique deep-water basin, 110 miles long and 20 miles wide, varying in depth from 4,199 to 6,601 feet. The basin floor is relatively smooth and soft, with very gradual depth changes.

Live ordnance: No

Eglin Air Force Base Located about seven miles from Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle, Eglin has 510,251 acres of ranges and other facilities, including two major air fields. In recent years the Navy has done live bombing on Eglin's test ranges. Hurlburt Field is adjacent to Eglin and is home of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

Strike group use: Air-to-ground firings, complex electronic warfare and eventually could support guns fired from ship-to-shore.

Size: 464,000 acres form the ranges, with 101,000 square miles of air space.

Live ordnance: Yes

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