Navy preparing for loss of Vieques bombing range

Inadequate training is feared if Puerto Rico doesn't budge on closing

November 19, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With U.S. and Puerto Rican officials deadlocked on the fate of the Vieques bombing range and time running out, the Navy is preparing to use the mainland to practice amphibious landings and aircraft bombing runs, Pentagon sources said yesterday.

Under the plan, the battle group of the USS Eisenhower, which was to train on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques during the first week of December, would instead use two ranges in Florida for aircraft bombing practice and Camp Lejeune, N.C., for amphibious landings.

"There is that option," said one source, although "it does not provide the Navy an adequate amount of training."

President Clinton pressed Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello this week to allow the continued use of the Vieques bombing range, which the Navy has used since 1941. In April, the range was temporarily closed after an errant bomb killed a security guard and injured four people. Puerto Rican leaders have demanded that the range never reopen for live-fire training.

Rossello rebuffed Clinton's request, his spokesman said.

Protesters have spread out over the range, and more are expected today, the anniversary of Columbus' first visit to Puerto Rico.

Pentagon and Navy officials say no other location would provide the "combined arms training" that Vieques does, allowing simultaneous Marine amphibious landings, aircraft bombing runs and ship gunnery fire.

None of the alternative sites in the continental United States allows for ship gunnery fire, officials said. As a result, three of the six ships in the Eisenhower battle group would not be qualified to use their guns unless they could use the Vieques range. Two months after the battle group's scheduled departure for the Persian Gulf in February, the gunnery qualification for two of the remaining three ships would lapse.

Without the use of the range on Vieques, the battle group would have the lowest possible combat-readiness rating for amphibious warfare and lower readiness rating for its air wing.

A presidential panel pointed last month to the unique nature of the Vieques range and recommended that the Navy be allowed to use it for five more years. In the meantime, the panel said, the live-fire training should be reduced from 180 days a year to 130 days.

Top uniformed leaders in the Pentagon favor the continued use of the range. Those of Puerto Rican heritage on the island and the mainland -- a key political force -- have vigorously lobbied Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely Senate candidate, and Vice President Al Gore. Both have called for an end to the bombing on Vieques.

Despite Rossello's refusal to budge on Vieques, talks are continuing, Pentagon officials said. There is hope that the governor will allow inert bombs -- from ships' guns and aircraft -- to be used on the range, the officials said.

A Navy report last summer concluded that the live-fire training at Vieques is its "most essential benefit."

Live fire is needed to give Navy gunners and gunfire spotters the practice of having explosives detonating near landing Marines, the report said.

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