April 27, 2001 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Puerto Rican officials recently filed a lawsuit to stop the Navy from resuming bombing practices on the nearby island of Vieques. Their argument: The drills violate anti-noise laws, including the 1972 federal Noise Control Act, and a brand-new Puerto Rican law that limits noises over beaches and surrounding waters.
It's a clever tactic by the U.S. territory, which has been trying to kick the Navy out for years. But this debate is about much more than peace and quiet on Vieques, an island 10 miles off the Puerto Rican coast. It's about maintaining the readiness levels of U.S. forces -- which are already dangerously low -- and preserving our ability to keep peace in the world.
If this appears a bit overstated, then consider a few of the reasons the Navy has used Vieques as a training area for more than six decades.
For one, it's crucial to U.S. military operations. It's the only training area in the entire Atlantic Ocean where the Navy and Marines can engage in land, air and sea exercises that closely simulate combat. That makes it the "crown jewel" and the "world standard" of military training areas, according to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson.
In addition, Vieques' size makes it ideal for moving Marines and firing guns from ships and planes without harming the island's 9,300 citizens, who live more than eight miles away from the bombing area. One civilian, tragically, did die when a U.S. fighter pilot mistook a watchtower -- where the civilian was standing guard -- for a target. However, that death two years ago is the only one logged during more than 60 years of training at Vieques.
The island also is outside commercial airline routes, so fighter pilots can fly at the same altitudes they would reach in combat. And ships can sail in the deep water around Vieques to fire at targets, while avoiding commercial shipping lanes.
Yet another advantage is that Vieques is close to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico, which employs 2,000 civilians. Roosevelt Roads is the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, a main link between the U.S. Navy and the navies of South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The base there is used for drug-fighting operations, humanitarian missions and navy-to-navy exercises, but the Navy would likely leave Roosevelt Roads if it can't train at Vieques.
Nevertheless, the concerns of the citizens of Puerto Rico shouldn't be ignored. There are several ways President Bush can show Puerto Rico that the Navy's presence at Vieques benefits everyone.
He can start by assuring the island's residents that Washington takes their concerns seriously, and that the Defense Department will continue studying the impact of training exercise on Vieques. One recent review conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found no connection between the bombing drills and health problems that some say are caused by the staged explosions.
President Bush can also assure residents that training exercises will occur only at predictable times and that the Navy will take extra measures to protect them.
In addition, the president should insist that the Navy make greater efforts to ensure long-term economic growth on the island. While the Navy has supported more than 20 economic development programs on Vieques over the past two decades, more can be done to help residents improve manufacturing, job training and tourism.
However, the president must make clear that global security and stability requires the Navy and the Marines to continue their training exercises at Vieques.
President Bush must balance the concerns of the people of Vieques with his concerns over the readiness of the U.S. armed forces. If the Navy leaves, the people of Vieques and many other Puerto Rican citizens would lose a valuable ally in improving their economic viability. And Americans would lose a training area that assures the quality of our nation's fighting forces.
That's a high price -- and it's worth making some noise about.
Jack Spencer is a defense policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).
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