The Importance of Vieques Island for Military Readiness

Report Defense

The Importance of Vieques Island for Military Readiness

February 16, 2001 17 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

Among the national security issues that President George W. Bush should address soon is how to resolve a heated dispute over the U.S. Navy's unique training facility on Vieques Island off the coast of Puerto Rico. In April 1999, an F-18 pilot erroneously identified a watchtower near the training exercise area as a bombing target and destroyed it, killing the civilian guard inside. Although this has been the only fatality in the 60-year history of the training facility, Puerto Rican independence activists are using the accident to galvanize public and official support for the immediate and permanent expulsion of the Navy from the island.

On January 21, 2000, then-President Bill Clinton succumbed to the rhetoric and issued a memorandum that would likely result in a halt in training exercises on Vieques. Though the loss of a life is tragic, closing this training facility would make a terrible mistake even worse by imperiling U.S. military readiness.

The Vieques facility is the only training environment on the East Coast that allows the Navy and Marine Corps to combine land, air, and sea man-euvers with live ordnance in exercises that closely replicate actual combat. The reasons this facility is vital to maintaining the combat readiness of America's Atlantic Fleet are many:1

  • Vieques' size allows the maneuver of Marine forces and aerial and ship gunfire without endangering the civilians who live eight or more miles away;

  • The island lies outside the path of commercial airline flights, which allows military pilots to deliver air-to-ground live ordnance from the altitudes at which they would fly in combat;

  • U.S. Navy ships can operate in the deep water off Vieques and still be within gunfire range of land-based targets without interfering with commercial shipping lanes; and

  • The island's terrain is excellent for Marine amphibious landings.

The unique characteristics of Vieques make it virtually irreplaceable. Indeed, since the facility opened during World War II, U.S. forces have trained in Vieques for almost every war and contingency, including the Persian Gulf war and the Kosovo operation. The exercise area lies just 10 miles from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico, which provides supply and refueling for the ships in training exercises, an emergency landing site for exercise aircraft, and the control, radar, and communications facilities for operations.

Roosevelt Roads also is the headquarters of the United States Naval Forces Southern Command, a main link between the U.S. Navy and the navies of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is at the forefront of U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere, participating in navy-to-navy exercises, counter drug operations, port visits, humanitarian missions, and protocol events. It exercises military command and control of all assigned ships and units and represents the U.S. Southern Command with respect to naval matters in the region. Because of Roosevelt Roads' involvement in the important Vieques training exercises, however, the U.S. Navy has indicated that it would likely have to vacate this facility if training at Vieques is ended.2

Despite these contributions to national security, on his final full day in office President Clinton issued a directive urging the Secretary of Defense to develop alternatives to training on Vieques. He specifically requested that the Pentagon report by March 9 on how the armed forces could fulfill their training requirements until 2003 without the facility and by November 9 under longer-term options.3

The new Governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Maria Calderon, strongly insists that the Navy leave the island and resists abiding by the terms of the agreement between the Clinton Administration and her predecessor, Governor Pedro Rosello. That agreement called for the transfer of 8,000 acres of land and a $40 million economic aid package in exchange for the Navy's immediate but limited use of Vieques for training. More important, it called for a referendum to allow the people of Vieques to decide the future of the facility and added a $50 million economic development aid package as an incentive for them to choose to allow the Navy to stay. Unless Calderon abides by the agreement, the Navy has indicated that the transfer of land and economic aid cannot go forward.4

By subjecting the future of Vieques to a referendum, the Clinton Administration transformed a national security concern into a highly politicized issue. Now that the Bush Administration is conducting an in-depth examination of the U.S. military forces, however, the issue of training is receiving serious consideration and President Bush is expected to clarify the U.S. position. He should ensure that his Administration can resolve the dispute by addressing both the national security requirements of the Atlantic Fleet and the serious concerns of the people of Vieques.


The U.S. Navy, Puerto Rico, and Vieques have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship. During World War II, the Navy purchased, for fair market value, two-thirds of Vieques Island to use as a combined land, sea, and air training facility in the Atlantic. On the west end of Vieques, the Navy maintains the Naval Ammunition Facility (NAF) on about 8,000 acres of land. The Inner Range of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility is located on the eastern end of the island and consists of the 11,000-acre Eastern Maneuver Area and the 900-acre Live Impact Area (LIA). Notably, the LIA represents only 2.7 percent of the Navy's holdings on the island.

According to General James Jones, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Admiral Jay Johnson, former Chief of Naval Operations, Vieques is "the only place on the East Coast where aircraft, naval surface ships and ground forces could employ combined arms training with live ammunition under realistic conditions."5 Vice Admiral William Fallon, Commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, and Lieutenant General Peter Pace, Commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, argue that the Vieques Training Range "is critically important for predeployment training and preparation" for Naval and Marine forces stationed in the Atlantic. It also "is the only location in the Atlantic where realistic multi-dimensional combat training can be conducted in a combined and coordinated manner." Moreover, they point out, Vieques' "day and night capability" and its "underwater and electronic warfare ranges" make it especially unique.6


A Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques reinforced these statements.7Among its findings:

  • "There is a valid requirement for the Navy to conduct combined arms exercises involving live air-to-ground ordnance, naval surface fire support and combined arms live fire training."

  • "Vieques is the only place which provides the capability for all elements of the East Coast based Naval Expeditionary forces (Carrier Battle Groups, Amphibious Ready Groups, and the embarked Marine Expeditionary Units) to conduct such exercises."

  • "At present there are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement for combined arms live fire training."

  • "At present, alternate training methods for the combined arms exercises most essential for readiness are not currently feasible or available."

These findings underscore the extremely rare characteristics of Vieques Island as a training facility and the indispensable function it performs in maintaining the Atlantic Fleet's combat readiness. However, Puerto Rican independence activists are waging a disinformation campaign, using the accidental killing of the civilian near the Vieques range to build public support for making the Navy leave Vieques. The Bush Administration, in resolving this dispute, will need to reverse the misinformation being put forth by the media that the Navy's presence is detrimental to the people of Vieques.

A study of the facts of the Navy's long presence on the island shows that:

  1. The Navy has not caused economic depression on Vieques Island and in Puerto Rico. The economic problems of the island are due primarily to poor infrastructure and natural disasters that affect businesses directly. Over the past 20 years, the Navy has supported over 20 economic development programs on Vieques and created the Economic Development Team to help the people of the island improve manufacturing, job training, infrastructure, transportation, and tourism. To assist the fishing industry, the Navy is establishing an artificial reef and building a database of underwater information.

In addition, the Navy has transferred 110 acres to Vieques to extend the runway of its small airport so that it can service larger aircraft. It is planning to issue updated navigational charts to allow more ships to visit the harbor, including high-speed ferries and cruise ships. When natural disasters hit, the Navy provides fresh water to the community, clears the roads and bridges, and takes on other recovery efforts. Finally, the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station is the largest employer in eastern Puerto Rico, providing jobs for over 2,000 civilians.

  1. The Navy strives to protect the environment and endangered species on and around Vieques Island. The Navy uses only 2.7 percent of its land for bombing and consistently cleans this area biannually. Moreover, it takes direct steps to limit environmental destruction. For example, it scans the training area for whales and turtles before training exercises to ensure that endangered species are not at risk. Over half the Navy land is managed in a conservation status with extensive programs for endangered species. Successful programs are in place to conserve the sea turtle and the habitats of brown pelicans and manatees, provide security from poachers and boat traffic, and develop scientific databases concerning the endangered species on the island.

  2. The Navy's activities do not pose a health risk to the Vieques population. The live bombing impact area is at least eight miles from the nearest town. (Some training ranges in other parts of America, such as Fort Sill, Oklahoma, are just one or two miles from town.) Since the Navy began using the island, not one civilian living or working off of the range has been injured or killed.

Moreover, studies disprove allegations that the rate of cancer, heart disease, infant mortality, and other ailments are exceedingly high on Vieques.8 For example, the allegation that infant mortality is higher on the island is rooted in a study released by a "reputable" Puerto Rican medical society.9 However, the day after the negative publicity blitz about the study, Puerto Rico Health Secretary Carmen Feliciano announced that the study was incomplete; it ignored three years in the middle of the study period--specifically, 1996 through 1998.

When both sides of the issue are considered, it is clear that the Navy's relationship with Puerto Rico and Vieques has been conducted responsibly and with respect to the inhabitants and the future of the island.


President Clinton's "Memorandum on a Resolution Regarding Use of Range Facilities on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico," which he issued on January 31, 2000, failed to resolve the dispute. The agreement provided for a local referendum to determine the Navy's long-term future on the island. Scheduled to be held on November 6, 2001, this referendum will present two alternatives: (1) the Navy would cease all training and leave Vieques by May 1, 2003, or (2) the Navy could continue to use Vieques, including live-fire training, on its own terms, in exchange for another $50 million public works package for the people of the island.

In addition, the agreement permitted the immediate resumption of severely limited training in exchange for $40 million in economic aid and the transfer of 8,000 acres from the Navy to the government of Puerto Rico. Training would take place on the island for only 90 days each year and would be restricted to non-exploding ordinance. The 8,000 acres owned by the Navy that would be returned lie on the west end of the island, the site of the Naval Ammunition Facility.

The memorandum also clearly stated, however,

that the full implementation of this directive is contingent upon the Government of Puerto Rico authorizing and supporting this referendum, and the cooperation of the Government of Puerto Rico as specified in paragraph 5(a).10

This provision requires the government of Puerto Rico to cooperate with federal agencies and the Department of Defense to ensure that the "integrity and accessibility of the range is uninterrupted."11

Governor Calderon is refusing to support the memorandum in any way. President Clinton's attempt to appease calls for the Navy's expulsion have failed miserably, most likely because the agreement confused the politics of the naval presence on Vieques with the national security implications of eliminating that presence. It subjects the future of the Navy training facility (which has to do with national security) to a local referendum (which is political). The agreement between the United States and Governor Pedro Rosello ultimately undermined his leadership and lifted the candidacy of Calderon.

Calderon repeatedly stated throughout her campaign that she would not cooperate with the Navy. She threatened to impose new environmental regulations that would make ship-to-shore shelling impossible and noise regulations that would hinder training even further. She promised to withdraw the police force that guards the range from protesters and offer an immediate local referendum to require the Navy to leave immediately, which would undermine the legitimacy of the November 6 referendum. Since becoming governor, Calderon has reiterated that she stands by her campaign pledges, which clearly violate both the spirit and the letter of the agreement.12

The consequences of her actions are regrettable. On January 5, 2001, the governor removed the Puerto Rican riot squads from Vieques, leaving only a contingent of local police to monitor the range. Within weeks, violent protesters moved in. In fact, over President George W. Bush's inaugural weekend, they cut fencing surrounding the bombing range and allegedly threw broken cinder blocks and used slingshots to target the facility.13

President Clinton had issued some instructions regarding the island in the days before he left office. On January 16, 2001, he ordered the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to review a new study conducted by the Puerto Rican government that linked the bombing on Vieques to health problems of residents.14 According to the Navy's initial review of the study, a correlation between the sort of training conducted by the Navy on the island and the health problems described in the study is not proven.15 HHS is to issue a preliminary report of its findings to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense by the end of February 2001.

On January 19, 2001--his last full day as President--Bill Clinton issued a directive to the Secretary of Defense urging him to develop alternatives to training on Vieques. He requested that the Pentagon issue a report by March 9 on how the armed forces could fulfill their training requirements through 2003 without the facility and by November 9 under other long-term options.16

Clearly, this approach has done little to resolve the dispute or correct the distortions that are troubling the people of Vieques. The primary duty of the United States government is "to provide for the common defence," and in today's global environment with a multitude of increasingly sophisticated weapons, combined military training is essential to fulfill that duty. Without the Vieques facility, the Atlantic Fleet will be unable either to prepare to protect and defend Puerto Ricans, Americans, and U.S. allies from aggression or to fight and win as America has done in World War II or the Persian Gulf. For the Navy to leave Vieques creates a no-win situation: The people of Vieques would lose a valuable ally in improving their quality of life, and Americans would lose a vital element in assuring the preeminence of the nation's fighting forces.


Governor Calderon's rebuke of the Clinton memorandum provides President Bush with an opportunity to demonstrate how important Vieques is to U.S. national security and to reverse the flawed policy in the Clinton agreement. President Bush should take advantage of this opportunity to:

  • Assure the people of Vieques that the Navy is as good for them as their island is for the Navy. The President should make clear that health and environmental concerns are important and that the Department of Defense will continue to study the impact of training exercises on the island, including health risks. It should continue to be the policy of the U.S. Navy to discontinue any behavior that poses a health risk to its hosts.

  • Make clear that the nation's security requires that the Navy and Marine Corps continue their combined training exercises to improve their readiness. However, he must assure the people of Vieques that peacetime training will be predictable and insist that the Navy take additional measures to protect all civilians from harm.

  • Insist that the Navy increase efforts to ensure the long-term economic viability of the island. This should include infrastructure renewal programs and aid to any businesses that have been adversely affected by the training operations. Finally, the Administration should open and adequately fund a community relations office that oversees and coordinates activities with Puerto Rico and Vieques.


As stated by former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson, "Vieques is an irreplaceable asset.... [I]t's the crown jewel of live-fire, combined arms training. It's the world standard."17 President George W. Bush must place a premium on the readiness of the forces as well as the concerns of the people of Vieques. Most important, however, he must not repeat former President Clinton's habit of putting political objectives before national security.

Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



1. U.S. Navy, "A Message from Rear Admiral Kevin P. Green, Commander, U.S. Naval forces, Southern Command," at  (February 8, 2001).

2. Roberto Suro, "Clinton Offers to Vacate Vieques Target Range in 5 Years," The Washington Post, December 4, 1999, p. A4.

3. Sonya Ross, "Clinton Sends Briefing on Vieques," AP Online, January 19, 2001.

4. See Michelle Faul, "Puerto Rican Chief Rejects Vieques Pact," The Washington Post, January 2, 2001, p. A2, and Ivan Roman, "Navy Threatens to Call Off Vieques Deal," Orlando Sentinel, December 13, 2000, p. A5.

5. Jay L. Johnson and James L. Jones, "Vieques Must Not Close; Getting Beyond the Training Incident," The Washington Times, September 30, 1999, p. A21.

6. Prepared testimony of Vice Admiral William Fallon, Commander, U.S. Second Fleet, and Lieutenant General Peter Pace, Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, before the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 106th Cong., 1st Sess., September 22, 1999.

7. See "Report to the Secretary of Defense of the Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques," at

8. U.S. Navy, "The Navy Cares," at  (February 8, 2001); "A Message from Rear Admiral Kevin P. Green, Commander, U.S. Naval forces, Southern Command," at  (February 8, 2001).

9. U.S. Navy, "The U.S. Navy and Vieques: Fact vs. Fiction," at  (February 18, 2001).

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. John Marino, "Puerto Rico Presses Case to End Vieques Bombing," The Washington Post, January 20, 2001, p. A2.

13. Eileen McNamara, "Navy Asks for More Police Protection Against Protests at Vieques Range," Associated Press, January 22, 2001.

14. Dale Eisman, "Clinton Orders Review of Study Linking Bombing to Heart Problem," The Virginian-Pilot, January 17, 2001, p. A7.

15. Elizabeth Becker, "Pentagon to Examine Heart Illness on Vieques," The New York Times, January 21, 2001, p. 26.

16. Ross, "Clinton Sends Briefing on Vieques."

17. "Richard Danzig Holds Defense Briefing with Others on Vieques," December 3, 1999, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Defense.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom