SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – As U.S. Navy ships assembled in the Caribbean for what could be one of the last rounds of maneuvers off Vieques island, they were without the foreign navies that once helped bombard the Navy's prized Atlantic firing range.
In past years, exercises like the one that began Wednesday might have involved the Germans or other allied forces training their troops by firing on Vieques — sometimes for a fee.
But controversy over the exercises has ended foreign navies' training on the small, inhabited island.
"Sixty years have gone by with the Navy using the area, renting it out to foreign governments and damaging the environment," Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderon told The Associated Press recently. "The environment has suffered but most importantly, the health conditions are atrocious."
Before long, U.S. training could end as well. The Pentagon was to announce Thursday that bombing exercises would end as early as 2003, a senior Bush administration official said on condition of anonymity.
The Navy says the exercises haven't caused harm and that it hasn't rented out the range but charged for the use of equipment and "range refurbishment" — repairing old planes and tanks that serve as targets and removing shrapnel and unexploded ordnance.
But the fee issue has engendered resentment in Puerto Rico, feeding opposition that has made it difficult for the Navy to continue the exercises.
Between 1996 and 1999, the Navy says it received $148,548 for use of the range. Countries that have trained on Vieques include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Britain, Greece, Italy, Canada, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands, Navy spokesman Lt. Corey Barker said Wednesday.
"There are no places in Europe or elsewhere where you find such a balanced variety of essential facilities," the commander-in-chief of the Royal Netherlands Navy, C. van Duyvendijk, said in a 1999 letter.
But allied navies have not been invited since 1999, when a civilian security guard was killed by two bombs dropped off-target on the range by a U.S. Marine jet.
"We don't want to subject the foreign navies to the controversy," Barker said. "It's better for them not to train there at all."
Before, navies practiced with live bombs and exercised an average 180 days a year. Now, only inert bombs are used and exercises are limited to 90 days a year, and foreign navies hold exercises in the "outer range," a 486,000-square-mile area that begins miles from Vieques and extends far out to sea.
Germany, the last foreign force to use the bombing range — in March 1999, a month before the fatal accident — held exercises in the outer range this year.
"We had the aircraft with us but consciously renounced using Vieques to avoid this problem," said Gerhard Deisenroth, spokesman for the German fleet command.