February 22, 2001

February 22, 2001 | News Releases on Latin America

Puerto Rican Island Important to Defense Readiness, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2001-The U.S. military could lose a key training facility-and suffer a serious blow to its already low level of combat readiness-unless President Bush takes steps to ensure that it can continue to train at Vieques Island, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

The Navy has used Vieques, 10 miles off the Puerto Rican coast, as a training area since World War II. But Puerto Rican independence activists have been working for years to evict the Navy and continue to highlight an April 1999 incident in which a U.S. fighter pilot mistakenly bombed a watchtower, killing a civilian guard.

Last month, President Clinton issued a memorandum directing the Defense Department to locate alternate training grounds. Puerto Ricans will vote in a November referendum on whether the Navy should be allowed to continue to use the island.

But Vieques is crucial to U.S. military operations, writes Heritage defense analyst Jack Spencer. It's the only training area in the Atlantic that enables the Navy and Marines to engage in land, air and sea exercises that closely simulate combat. In addition, Vieques' size makes it ideal for moving Marines and firing guns from ships and planes without harming the island's citizens, who live more than eight miles away.

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.

Another advantage is that the island is close to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico. 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 have to leave Roosevelt Roads if it can't train at Vieques.

"The unique characteristics of Vieques make it virtually irreplaceable," Spencer says. "U.S. forces have trained in Vieques for almost every war and contingency, including the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo operation."

Spencer says President Bush must show the Puerto Ricans that the Navy's presence at Vieques benefits both the Navy and them. He can do this by:

Assuring the island's residents that the United States takes their health and environmental concerns seriously, and that the Defense Department will continue studying the impact of training exercise on Vieques.

  • Making clear that regional security requires the Navy and the Marines to continue their training exercises at Vieques. Bush also should assure residents that training exercises occur at predictable times and that the Navy will take extra measures to protect them.

  • Insisting that the Navy make greater efforts to ensure long-term economic growth on the island. Over the past 20 years, the Navy has supported more than 20 economic development programs on Vieques, and helped residents improve manufacturing, job training and tourism.

"President Bush must place a premium on the readiness of the forces as well as the concerns of the people of Vieques," Spencer says. "If the Navy leaves, 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."

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