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Why We Need Vieques

by Richard Danzig
Secretary of the Navy

May 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 DOW JONES & CO., INC. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rican police and the U.S. Department of Justice have removed the protesters who had been occupying the naval training ground on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . This is important. Even with all our modern weaponry, training remains as crucial to the Navy's combat readiness as it was when the U.S. Navy bought land on Vieques at the beginning of World War II. In fact, the complexity, intensity and value of training have grown in every one of the six decades since that time.

Those who have protested against the Navy using its land on Vieques sometimes talk as thought the site poses a unique burden for Puerto Rico . This is plainly wrong. Vieques is one of 57 military training sites in the U.S. Live ordnance is used in 33 major range complexes in 14 states, two territories and six foreign countries.

Every six months, America sends a carrier battle group and a Marine amphibious ready group from the East Coast across the Atlantic Ocean to protect America's interests and meet its security commitments in Europe and the Arabian Gulf. A similar deployment is made in the Pacific.

The training of the 11,000 men and women deploying in these groups begins at small-unit levels throughout the nation. But eventually the individual units must come together to operate as a cohesive, effective force. This requires pilots to launch from aircraft carriers and to practice delivering munitions against targets amid the smoke, noise and confusion of simultaneous gunfire and land operations. It requires sailors to experience both firing and adjusting that fire in response to information from aerial spotters and from Marines on the ground. It requires Marines to launch operations over the beach. And it requires everyone to do this under conditions of tension and reduced visibility, while destroying real targets. This is our most effective training for combat. It is why our sailors and Marines are so good.

Our forces must be ready for battle when they arrive on scene. In December 1998, the USS Carl Vinson battle group was in combat within eight hours of arriving in the Arabian Gulf, firing cruise missiles against Iraq. In fact, the last seven carrier battle groups to deploy overseas have seen combat in places like Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Vieques is a uniquely valuable site for five critical reasons:

-- Because Vieques is outside the path of commercial airline flights, military pilots can deliver live air-to-ground ordinance from the same altitudes they would in combat, aiming at realistic and challenging targets.

-- Ships can operate in deep water within gunfire range of land-based targets without interfering with commercial shipping traffic.

Water depths drop to more than 70 feet just 1.5 nautical miles from Vieques 's shoreline.

-- Beaches and land formations on Vieques permit Marine amphibious landing operations.

-- Vieques is within 10 miles of the large port and naval station of Roosevelt Roads. The base permits supply and refueling of ships, provides an emergency landing site for exercise aircraft, and houses the range control center, necessary radar and communication facilities for operations at Vieques . Roosevelt Roads contributes thousands of civilian and military workers, and billions of dollars of infrastructure, to support Vieques operations.

-- The Vieques range provides acreage large enough to permit the maneuver of Marine forces, and aerial and ship gunfire, without danger to the adjacent civilian population.

Some of these attributes could be found elsewhere. But they are rarely found in the same place. Together they enable battle groups and amphibious ready groups to come to grips with training for war.

The people of Vieques have asserted their right to a voice in the future of the Island. We have accommodated this by scheduling a referendum to occur within the next 21 months. The referendum, agreed upon by President Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello in January, will allow the registered voters of Vieques to choose whether or not the Navy and Marine Corps will continue training there.

By peacefully removing protestors, we have taken a big step toward the resumption of naval training and resolution of this matter by democratic processes.


Mr. Danzig is Secretary of the Navy.

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