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Spence: Fleet Readiness Remains Threatened by Vieques Closure

by Hunter Keeter

March 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 PHILLIPS BUSINESS INFORMATION, INC. All Rights Reserved.

The continued closure of the Vieques, Puerto Rico, military training range by anti-Navy protestors remains a serious threat to fleet readiness, according to Floyd Spence (R-SC), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC).

"If Vieques remains closed to military training, the readiness of east coast navy and marine units will rapidly erode," according to Spence's latest military readiness review released last week.

Spence cites the latest quarterly readiness report from the Department of Defense, which notes that unless surface ships are allowed to resume naval gunfire training on the island, they will only receive, "in DoD parlance, 'a C3 readiness rating which prevents [them] from performing some missions.'"

To date, the Navy has stated that ships will not be deployed with a C3 rating, according to Spence.

Because the Navy does not discuss specific readiness ratings of individual units, the actual number of ships rated at C3 readiness is classified, according to a service official.

The government's efforts thus far in managing the Vieques problem have not yielded desired results, despite a written agreement. The president signed January 31 an agreement with the government of Puerto Rico to re-open the Vieques range for limited training using inert ammunition (Defense Daily, Feb. 1).

But that agreement has yet to be honored by the protestors.

"Despite the January 31 agreement...protestors continue to occupy the training range preventing the resumption of training to date," Spence writes.

For the USS George Washington (CVN-73) aircraft carrier battle group, the problem of Vieques is becoming a present-tense reality. The battle group is now completing its training to deploy this June. Expectations are that the George Washington battle group will likely become the second such force to deploy without the benefit of live-fire, integrated training on Vieques .

The George Washington aircraft carrier battle group includes USS Normandy (CG-60), USS Cole (DDG-67), USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), USS Caron (DD-970), USS Briscoe (DD-977), USS Hawes (FFG-53), USS Simpson (FFG-56), USS Albany (SSN- 753), USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720), USS Supply (AOE-6).

CVW-17 is the carrier air wing embarked on George Washington.

The USS Saipan (LHA-2) Amphibious Ready Group, which accompanies the George Washington battle group, is to embark with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Saipan's amphibious group includes USS Austin (LPD-4) and USS Ashland (LSD-48).

"They are in the final stages of their second-to-last training hurdle prior to being certified for deployment," Cmdr. Bill Spann, 2nd Fleet spokesman, told Defense Daily during an interview yesterday. "That is being held as we speak in the Gulf of Mexico now, including some live-fire at ranges in Eglin AFB, Fla., and Pine Castle, Fla."

But Spann noted that the "training fidelity" that the battle group is now receiving is not what the Navy would like them to get. The ships and aircraft of the George Washington battle group are limited, at those ranges, by adjacent crowded commercial air corridors.

Restrictions govern the type and size of bombs that the aircraft can use, for example. Additionally, the number and composition of aircraft that go in on strike missions are limited.

"We cannot use the tactical altitudes or flight profiles that we would in war," he said. "It's the best we have but we are not able to train as we would fight."

He noted that "the beauty of Vieques " lies in its provisions for practicing with "the whole team at once," just as the force would in a real-life scenario.

Getting the George Washington's aircraft ready to fight is one thing. But the absence of Vieques training also cuts into the readiness of the battle group's surface combatant gun crews.

" Vieques is the only Atlantic fleet live fire gunnery range for our five- inch shooters," Spann said. "To date in their training cycle they have not been able to fire their guns and without Vieques that's not likely to change."

Spence and the HASC are concerned that this will prove costly if the battle group is called upon to fight, as previous battle groups have, shortly after arriving at their duty stations.

For Navy and Marine Corps units to deploy with properly high levels of readiness, they "must immediately resume" live-fire training on Vieques ," Spence writes. "Anything less risks the us military's ability to execute the national military strategy and endangers the lives of American sailors and marines."

The George Washington will not be the first battle group to face the challenge of restricted training in home waters.

Last winter, the Eisenhower battle group and its airwing began their deployment to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf at something less than what is called C1 readiness state. C1 certifies the group as having demonstrated proficiency in all of its missions, including close air support of ground forces and precision bombing (Defense Daily, Dec. 14).

A readiness state of C2, the level the Eisenhower airwing rated in February, indicates that the group can perform its missions; however, it is less practiced in each of the mission areas than they would be to earn a C1 rating.

In addition, the battle group's surface warships did not have the opportunity to use their guns during combined arms exercises prior to deployment. European gunnery ranges had to be used as a make-up measure, but these may not be adequate in the long term.

A military official noted that George Washington carrier battle group would likely deploy at about the same readiness level as the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) carrier battle group did. He added that the George Washington battle group would have to find some alternatives for under-way gunnery training that would "mirror" what the Eisenhower battle group had to do.

But alternative naval live-fire training sites in Scotland and the Italian island of Sardinia cannot make up for the loss of the Vieques range in Puerto Rico , according to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) (Defense Daily, March 2).

Inhofe noted that restricted access and distance are two key limiting factors that make the European sites less than ideal.

In the end, should the Vieques range be opened again before the George Washington departs, the Navy will be ready to pounce on the opportunity to use it, Spann noted. But that could become a scheduling hassle.

The Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFX) that is the final stage in George Washington's training before deployment is already scheduled and involves a huge planning effort to coordinate with Army and Air Force units taking part with the Navy and Marines. If Vieques suddenly became available, it could be difficult for the Navy to move substantial portions of the exercise down there.

"If and when Vieques becomes available again we will be eager to use it," Spann said. "But we are to a point now where the JTFX starts in about three have to make some [planning and coordination] assumptions fairly far in advance to make sure you have the services you need in the exercise. The JTFX is so large that we don't have the luxury of changing the venue on short notice; having said that, if Vieques becomes available, we intend to use it at the earliest opportunity."

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