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The Nation Needs Vieques

by Jay L. Johnson and James L. Jones
Adm. Jay L. Johnson is chief of naval operations and Gen. James L. Jones is commandant of the Marine Corps.

November 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On April 19 a Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet was involved in a tragic accident at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.

Flying in cloudy weather, the pilot mistook an observation building located within the range for a ground target. He dropped two 500-pound bombs on what he thought was the correct target, and the explosion resulted in the death of David Sanes-Rodriguez, a civilian security guard at the facility. We are deeply sorry for the death of Mr. Sanes-Rodriguez.

This tragic accident has prompted a demand for the closure of the Vieques facility. As the dialogue over Vieques continues, it is important to understand the vital contribution that Vieques Island makes to our national security. Vieques is the only place on the East Coast where aircraft, naval surface ships and ground forces can employ combined arms training with live ammunition under realistic conditions.

Vieques is unique because of its hydrography, geography and surrounding airspace. It lies outside heavily used commercial air corridors and sea routes, providing sea and air space for live-fire training. It is a superior site for rehearsing amphibious operations in a live-fire environment.

A world-class training facility of this type comes at a significant price. Americans have invested more than $3 billion on land, facilities and equipment to support our training in the Puerto Rican Operating Area, of which the Vieques range and the nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Station are the centerpiece.

The fundamental value of the Vieques facility is proven every day by our forward deployed naval forces. The Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups and the Amphibious Ready Group that trained at Vieques within the last year ended up flying combat operations over Iraq and Kosovo within days of their arrival overseas. They delivered many of their attacks from high altitude, and their ability to do so successfully was directly related to their training at Vieques.

The future of Vieques Island as a training facility must transcend the emotion of the April 19 tragedy. The accident should not override the fact that the range on Vieques has an enviable safety record over the course of its more than half century of use. This was the first loss of life from the release of ordnance, and no bomb or round has ever fallen on Vieques outside the confines of the range. Ordnance impact areas are nearly 10 miles to the east of the population center, separated by a range of hills. On the East Coast, only Vieques provides a site to practice the combined land, sea and air maneuver and live-fire skills that are fundamental to our ability to fight and win our nation's battles and wars.

Within the limits of current technology, many skills and techniques of weapons and aircraft training are still learned and perfected with the use of live ordnance under realistic conditions. Such experiences build the skills and confidence that our forces need before undertaking their operational deployments. The success of our military depends on regular access to our national training facilities at Vieques Island and other sites that provide these experiences.

Decreasing, restricting or eliminating access to such facilities as a result of a once-in-a-generation accident will result in reduced combat skills proficiency of our service members and could cause loss of American lives in future conflicts.

Before rendering any judgment that places men and women of our armed forces at increased risk, we must carefully weigh the short-term benefits of such decisions against the likely long-term consequences.

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