Navy Looks for New Site to Replace Vieques

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The Navy is sizing up sites from Nevada to North Carolina for places to send warplanes bombing and strafing, Marines storming the beaches and ships firing live bombardments ashore.

The idea is to stitch together a patchwork of training areas to replace a joint Navy-Marine combat range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques if the military is ordered out as expected.

Each possible site seems to have its own limitations. One is too boggy, another too busy. A third has too many people close by; a fourth raises concerns about fire dangers.

Most all of them don't want live bombs falling in their back yards.

Pentagon officials say no satisfactory solution has been found to the almost certain loss of the range on the hilly, 18-mile-long island southeast of Puerto Rico.

"There have been numerous attempts made to try to find an alternative training site, and so far, we've been unable to do that," Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., said on Capitol Hill after the administration announced the military would quit bombing on Vieques by May 2003.

Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, worried that few other nations will continue to accept U.S. military training if Americans won't. "What do we tell them?" he asked. "We won't bomb on ours, but we'll bomb on yours?"

Navy Secretary Gordon England has defended the decision to look beyond Vieques. He says alternatives must be found in case the Navy loses a previously scheduled Nov. 6 referendum in which the island's 9,500 residents will vote on whether the Navy should remain or leave in 2003.

England asked Congress to cancel the referendum, which the former Clinton administration negotiated with officials of the U.S. commonwealth. But lawmakers who want training to continue on Vieques are determined that the vote will be held as scheduled.

At a recent Pentagon briefing, England said a combination of sites are used to train Marines and Navy units on the West Coast. On the East Coast last year, some Navy ships were forced to piece together training when Vieques was closed by protests.

That forced warplanes from the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to conduct bombing runs at the Pinecastle range south of Jacksonville, Fla., and at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. Later, live-fire ship-to-shore gunnery practice was done at Cape Wrath in Scotland.

Without Vieques, the Navy and Marine Corps would be forced to use a hodgepodge of existing ranges and would find it quite difficult to build new ones in an age of military economizing and ecological sensitivities.

In 1999, the Navy and Marine Corps looked at training ranges in a variety of locations in the United States. Officials in several locations cited environmental considerations to keep out the military: critical wetlands, endangered species, noise problems for nearby residents.

None of the sites offered aircraft carrier battle groups and Marine amphibious units conditions for conducting varied training functions at the same time. Such practice is considered essential before ships sail into potential combat situations in the Mediterranean Sea or Persian Gulf areas.

The Navy considers Vieques the only place along the East Coast where gunners can practice "live-fire" targeting. With little interference from commercial air traffic, military pilots can practice high-altitude bombing runs similar to what would be necessary for places such as Iraq.

Waters around Vieques allow for all sorts of ship maneuvers. Its beaches are used for practicing amphibious landings as well anti-mining procedures. Special ranges provide practice for "electronic warfare," the jamming of radars and intercepting communications.

Also, it has a full-service naval base and naval air station close by in Puerto Rico. The combination has provided an arena for the armed forces to mount the nearest thing possible to a full-scale combat action in peacetime.

Protesters on Vieques say years of live-fire bombing have destroyed their health and their island's environment. The Navy stopped using live bombs months after two stray ones killed a civilian security guard on the range in 1999 and masses of islanders protested continued exercises. Since then, protesters have taken to invading Navy land to prevent planes from dropping inert bombs of up to 1,000 pounds.

Despite the problems associated with combat training, some areas are amenable to attracting the military — and jobs that would come with it — to their regions.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, told England at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing that some in his Gulf of Mexico district are eager to host a new Navy range along a secluded area in Kenedy County, Padre Island.

He admitted, however, that others strongly oppose it. For instance, the Kenedy County commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the idea.