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Warner Links Future Naval Deployment To Resumption of Vieques Live-Fire Training

October 26, 1999
Copyright © 1999 DOW JONES & CO., INC. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP)--The U.S. Senate will hold an emergency hearing to question deployment of a Navy battle group to the Mediterranean if the order is given without the ships undergoing live-fire training in Puerto Rico, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman said Tuesday.

"Congress is not going to sit by" while U.S. military men and women head into the field unprepared for battle, Sen. John Warner told the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs chairman, repeated military claims that the Puerto Rican island of Vieques is the only site available for Atlantic fleet combined training of air, sea and land forces with live bombs.

As the battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower undergoes other training in the region, the Pentagon is weighing a decision on whether to continue using Vieques over the protests of Puerto Rican authorities.

Even if Congress is not in session when a decision is made on deployment of the Eisenhower battle group, Warner told Shelton he would call a special hearing to "evaluate your professional judgment on the readiness of that battle group."

Navy concern over preparedness is enhanced by the fact that the last two aircraft carriers deployed from the Atlantic Fleet ended up participating in combat operations. The USS Enterprise engaged in attacks against Iraq from the Persian Gulf and the USS Theodore Roosevelt flew combat missions in Kosovo from the Mediterranean.

The Navy suspended training on its Vieques range after protests over the death of a civilian guard, David Sanes Rodriguez, in a bombing accident on the island April 19.

A Pentagon-appointed panel concluded that the Navy should resume limited training but phase out use of the range over five years. Training remains suspended, however, pending a final decision by Defense Secretary William Cohen and President Bill Clinton. Puerto Ricans demand that the facility be returned for civilian use. The island has 9,400 civilian residents, who are U.S. citizens.

Shelton said personnel with the Eisenhower, scheduled to be in the Mediterranean in December, couldn't be prepared with a high level of confidence unless they can conduct training that replicates real-life situations.

The Navy said earlier the ships would be in "a significant reduced state of readiness" if crews couldn't undergo the realistic training. The battlegroup steamed out of Norfolk, Va., a month ago.

"We should not deploy under those conditions," Shelton said. But he stopped short of saying he wouldn't deploy if the forces do not receive the Vieques training.

"It is time for the Puerto Rican government to sit down with the Department of Defense" to see where accommodations can be made, he said.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later said Cohen was planning to meet in Washington later this week with Puerto Rican leaders to seek a solution to the standoff over use of Vieques .

The official said the administration hoped a deal could be reached at the table. "Everybody has their fingers crossed," the official said.

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