Peace Time: December 1, 1999

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GUNS FALL SILENT AT VIEQUES: Last September, the US Navy did something it had not done in decades: it sent a destroyer on a six-month overseas deployment that had not qualified (practiced until it passed a rigid standard) to fire its cannon in support of a Marine amphibious landing. Next February, when another carrier group heads for European waters, its destroyers will also be unqualified for this critical mission. The reason is that the Atlantic Fleet's only combined arms gunnery and amphibious training change is closed down. The range is closed not by political fiat, not by a lack of funding, not even to save some endangered species, but because local civilians on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques have occupied the impact zone to prevent further gunfire there.

Vieques lies about 7 miles from the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. The Navy owns about 2/3 of the land, using the western quarter as an ammunition dump and the eastern half as an amphibious training zone where Marines storm the beaches and then fight their way inland. (Two towns, Isabla Segunda and Esperanza, lie in between. The land was bought for market value during WWII.) On the extreme eastern tip there is an artillery impact zone about a mile square. Ships headed for duty in European or Middle Eastern waters stop here to fire their guns, maneuver between the islands, and practice landing their Marines. The whole complex is supported by the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on Puerto Rico itself; this base has pumped billions into the Puerto Rican economy.

There have been protests for years over the Naval presence, and those few Puerto Ricans (mostly in the small independence movement) who want the Navy to leave have used the live fire artillery zone on Vieques as a wedge issue. Based on noise, danger, and environmental concerns, they have gathered more support to stop the shelling of Vieques than they could gather to eject the Navy, but it amounts to the same thing. Without the ability to fire their guns during a nearby Marine landing exercise, the Navy would have to relocate the whole complex somewhere else. The only suitable facility in this hemisphere is the Russian amphibious training and naval gunnery range on Cuba. This plan is supported by developers who want to turn the Marine amphibious training zone (the only pristine area left in Puerto Rico) into a tourist haven.

The sporadic protests (mostly around Puerto Rica elections) turned into a sit-in demonstration last April when a Puerto Rican civilian, employed by the US Navy as a security guard to keep people from wandering into the gunnery range, was killed by a bomb dropped just outside of the target zone. He was the only civilian ever killed by a military accident on Vieques. This death was seized upon by the anti-Navy faction, many of whom simply climbed over the fences into the artillery zone and set up tents. The Puerto Rican National Guard artillery range on the main island has a fairly bad safety record, occasionally dropping a shell into one of the nearby villages. The Guard has been ordered by the Puerto Rican government to stop all artillery live fire training until the Navy is forced out of Vieques. Congress ordered a panel to study the issue, and that panel recommended on 18 Oct that the Navy give up its live fire training on the island and find somewhere else to conduct it.

The Navy is far from pleased with the idea of giving up its gunnery range, insisting that it will have to spend a billion dollars or more replacing it, money better spent on ships or training. The Navy notes the unique conditions of Vieques. There is no commercial shipping, allowing the Navy to maneuver at will. There is virtually no commercial air travel through the area, allowing bombers to fly at high altitude as is now required by enemy air defenses. The water is fairly deep (70 feet two miles from the beach) allowing the Navy to bring its deep-draft ships in close to the landings. The sloping hills allow warships to actually see where their shells are landing, confirming that the shells are really hitting where the mathematical equations say they should be. The amphibious training beaches open onto 22,000 acres of maneuver area, more than is used by the Army's National Training Center.

Critics have charged that closing down the firing range could be politically motivated, in that Hillary Clinton has sought the Puerto Rican vote in the New York senate race. The White House has denied any connection, noting that most of the Puerto Ricans in New York vote for the Democratic Party anyway. It should also be noted that Puerto Rican governor Rosello is co-Chairman of Vice President Gore's election campaign. 

Much of the charges by the anti-Navy faction in Puerto Rico are false. They complain of supersonic jets buzzing the two towns on the island, but this never happens and the noise from the local airport is greater than that from Navy planes flying six miles away. The anti-Navy faction complains that US cities on the mainland do not have to tolerate bombing ranges "right next to them - but Viequensens do!" when in fact the live fire range is 9 miles from the nearest town and several US mainland live fire areas (such as that at Eglin AFB) are closer to civilian towns. The anti-Navy faction complains that the Navy is doing massive environmental damage, but in fact the wildlife areas on Navy property on are the only remaining havens for the brown pelican and the sea turtles (which are constantly victimized by local poachers) and the artillery impact zone is operated under strict environmental regulations that far exceed other parts of Puerto Rico.

In the final analysis, the fact that anyone in the US Congress or the Clinton Administration is even considering the closure of Vieques indicates one salient fact of government today: Few people really understand the need for military training, or that a peacetime military actually is quite busy preparing for future conflicts and is not available for other tasks (forest fires, peacekeeping, nation building), or that the lack of such training is going to cost lives in the next conflict. History has taught a bitter lesson to nations who failed to train their military forces before the guns started to speak, a lesson paid for in blood. But then, of course, military personnel volunteered for that sort of thing, didn't they?--Stephen V Cole

The Air Force told the Joint Chiefs that it needs the other services to take over some of its missions while it reconstitutes from the Kosovo War. The other services refused, noting that they already had all of the missions they could handle.--Stephen V Cole

 


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