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Questions & Answers:
Why The Navy Considers It Important To Drop Live Bombs On Vieques

by Robert Burns

December 4, 1999
Copyright © 1999 ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Here are some questions and answers to explain why the Navy considers it so important to drop live bombs, artillery shells and missiles on Vieques over the vehement objections of Puerto Ricans .

Q. Why can't the Navy do its bomb training somewhere else?

A. This is at the heart of the controversy. The Navy says it has looked hard and can find no other place along the Atlantic Coast where it can bring naval and Marine forces together for realistic combat training using live ammunition. It has used Vieques since World War II, but after an errant bomb killed a Puerto Rican security guard last April, the Navy suspended training on the island.

Q. What is wrong with using dummy bombs, instead of real ones?

A. Dummy, or "inert," bombs are used - with sand or concrete inside the casing instead of explosives. But the Navy insists there is no adequate alternative to using at least some real bombs as part of the training that sailors and Marines get before heading overseas in aircraft carrier battle groups.

Q. What is so special about live ammunition?

A. In the Navy's view, two things: those who assemble, load and arm the bombs and shells fired from naval aircraft and ships need to practice with the real thing or risk losing their edge; and the Marines who storm ashore in coordination with aerial bombing and Navy shipboard gunfire need to experience the sound and fury of real weapons in order to be fully prepared for combat they may face later.

"The use of live ordnance in training rivets the attention of those who manage, handle and employ it with a combination of fear and reverence that inert ordnance cannot convey," the Navy wrote in a July report that laid out its rationale for insisting that sailors and Marines keep training on Vieques .

Q. Why not do this training after a battle group arrives on station abroad instead of before it leaves?

A. That is a possibility, but not one U.S. military leaders like. The Navy, Marine Corps and other services pride themselves on knowing that troops sent abroad are combat-ready. This is important, they say, because units sometimes are called on to fight immediately upon their arrival abroad.

That was true with two of the last three carrier battle groups deployed from the East Coast.

In the early days of NATO's air war over Kosovo, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its battle group crossed the Atlantic at high speed to the Adriatic Sea in spring to relieve the USS Enterprise battle group. The Roosevelt began combat operations shortly after arrival. The Enterprise group had begun its deployment in the Persian Gulf, where it, too, began operations soon after arrival. Both carriers' air wings had prior live-fire training at Vieques .

"To provide our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen with less than this optimum training in the future would be unconscionable, cause undue casualties and place our nation's vital interests at risk," Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander, wrote in August in arguing for resuming training on Vieques .

Q. Isn't this just a Navy problem?

A. It is mainly a Navy problem, but some in the Pentagon believe the Vieques episode could have far-reaching consequences for the entire armed forces. They fear that U.S. access to training grounds in other countries could be in jeopardy if the Puerto Rican example of civil protest is repeated elsewhere.

Navy Adm. Jay L. Johnson, the chief of naval operations, and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, wrote about this in a joint statement after a presidential panel recommended in October that the Navy get out of Vieques within five years.

"Our friends and allies also have interest groups that would prefer that these activities not take place near their communities," Johnson and Jones wrote. "The `not-in-my-backyard' movement is a phenomenon that, if it succeeds at home, could greatly undermine training opportunities abroad."

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