WASHINGTON -- Citing "serious concerns" from Puerto Rico, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has delayed his recommendation to President Clinton on the fate of a 58-year-old Navy firing range there, even though a presidential panel concluded yesterday that the range should continue operating for five more years.
Cohen asserted that U.S. forces must be kept "well-trained and ready." But he said there should be more discussions with officials on Puerto Rico and Vieques Island, which the Navy and Marines have long used as a live-fire range.
Pentagon officials said Under Secretary of Defense Rudy F. de Leon would take part in those discussions, with the four members of the panel that issued its report yesterday.
Puerto Rican leaders have increasingly complained about the noise and pollution caused by the bombing and about the dangers for the 9,300 residents of Vieques. But military officials argue that the base is an essential training ground for Navy and Marine Corps forces.
There was no indication how long the talks would continue or when Cohen would make his recommendation to Clinton -- an unknown that the Navy finds particularly troubling.
The range has been closed since a stray bomb killed a Puerto Rican guard and injured four others in April.
Unless the battle group of the carrier USS Eisenhower can use the range by the first week of December, Navy officials say, it will have to deploy to the Persian Gulf next year with three of its six ships unqualified to fire their guns.
As expected, the presidential panel concluded yesterday that the use of the bombing range is vital to national security and recommended that live-fire training continue for five years -- but for 130 days a year, compared with 180 days last year.
Though the panel said there were no alternative firing range sites on the East Coast, it said the Navy should look for new technologies, techniques and weapons systems that will "rapidly change training requirements and methods."
There is also a political element to the dispute. Some of Vice President Al Gore's supporters and fund-raisers for his presidential race are from Puerto Rico and oppose the range.
Moreover, some of these same supporters have pressed Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to be a U.S. Senate candidate in New York, to side with the residents of Vieques. Yesterday, she did.
"I am disappointed that this panel has recommended that the Navy resume its bombing on Vieques," she said. "There should be an immediate and permanent end to the bombing."
Puerto Rican leaders and advocates also criticized the report, saying they would not discuss a resumption of bombing.
"I don't see how there can be any mediation or negotiation," said Flavio Cumpiano, an attorney for the Committee for the Protection and Development of Vieques. "Negotiation implies letting the Navy remain on Vieques."
"The bombardment should cease immediately; it's non-negotiable," said Alfonso Aguilar, a spokesman for Gov. Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico, who will testify on Vieques before the Senate Armed Services Committee today with military leaders. The governor has threatened legal action if the Navy tries to resume live-fire training on the island.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig embraced the findings of the presidential panel, led by Assistant Defense Secretary Frank Rush.
But Danzig also said he was ordering the Navy's research center, the Center for Naval Analyses, to investigate long-term alternatives to Vieques. And he said he hoped to meet with Puerto Rican officials to devise an economic development package for the island.
With its deep waters and lack of busy ship and aircraft lanes, the 11-mile-long Vieques Island off the tip of Puerto Rico is regarded as an ideal training site. World War II troops gearing up for amphibious landings in the Pacific and pilots ready to bomb in Kosovo last spring trained on Vieques.
"There is a valid requirement for the Navy to conduct combined arms exercises to provide combat-ready forces for deployment," the presidential panel's report concluded. "Such training is vital to preparing deploying forces for possible combat, and without such training, the risk to personnel is increased."
Relations between the Navy and Puerto Rico have deteriorated for years and erupted into protests with the April death of a range security guard.
The panel said the Navy failed to live up to a 1983 agreement with Puerto Rico, intended to address these issues and provide economic aid. "Those economic development initiatives failed," mostly because of the Navy's poor planning and execution, the report said.
Though the Navy has done a "commendable job" in addressing some environmental concerns, the report said, it has shown an "insensitivity" to complaints of noise.
Pub Date: 10/19/99