The top officers of the Navy and Marine Corps in a private letter have asked Navy Secretary Gordon England to allow sailors and Marines to resume using live bombs and rounds during training on the island of Vieques.
Gen. James Jones, the Marine commandant, and Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, cite the war on terrorism as a reason to let the next carrier battle group conduct limited live-fire practice. The issue is one of Washington’s hottest political debates, and a decision to resume the use of real ammunition could reignite protests on the Puerto Rican island.
“We respectfully request support of a wartime modification of current practice to sanction the use of live ordnance during combined arms training exercises prior to deployment,” the two four-star officers said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
Under a policy ordered by President Clinton to defuse protests, naval combatants were limited to “dummy” rounds on Vieques. But military advocates say the inert rounds do not adequately prepare pilots, gunners and infantry for battle.
“We’re at war, and our deploying forces need proper training,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said yesterday. “Training not only enhances their warfighting effectiveness, it saves lives. Simply put, the best and most realistic practice for war is live-fire training.”
He added, “I commend the commandant and the Navy CNO for their steadfast commitment to providing the highest level of training and safety for our men and women in uniform.”
Gen. Jones and Adm. Clark specifically asked that the carrier USS John F. Kennedy, and its battle group of surface ships and Marine-carrying amphibious assault vessels, be allowed to use live munitions.
The Kennedy is the next carrier to depart the East Coast for a six-month, or longer, tour in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf regions this spring. It is scheduled to relieve the USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose aircraft are conducting strikes over Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea.
The Kennedy’s pilots and Marines could go into combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. The State Department says Baghdad is a supporter of international terrorism, which President Bush has vowed to eliminate.
A Navy spokesman at the Pentagon declined yesterday to discuss the letter.
“As a matter of policy and common courtesy, we are not in the habit of confirming or discussing internal discussions within the Navy Department,” the spokesman said.
The request was expected to reinvigorate a hotly contested issue that had subsided after the September 11 attacks, as Navy pilots went to war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Puerto Rican politicians and the Democratic Party have pushed the Bush administration to immediately close the range. Mr. Bush has proposed a compromise that would end Vieques training in two years while the Navy searches for an alternative to Vieques’ unique setting that allows components of a battle group to practice simultaneously.
Congress voted in 2000 to authorize a referendum on the island to let residents decide the range’s future. But that vote, delayed until this January, will never happen, congressional sources said yesterday.
An ongoing House-Senate conference on the 2002 defense authorization bill likely will produce language that cancels the referendum. Instead, the bill would direct the Navy to keep Vieques open until Adm. Clark and Gen. Jones certify they have found an alternative site equal to Vieques.
That requirement could keep Vieques open indefinitely, since top officers have testified that the island range offers unique features.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signaled in a letter to Congress that he would support the amendment as long as it did not require a “single” site but perhaps a complex of training areas.
In their letter, Gen. Jones and Adm. Clark spelled out the kind of training they were seeking.
They wrote, “Such training would be limited in scope and only apply to ‘graduate level’ exercises in which (1) Navy and Marine units finalize coordination for combat operations, and (2) a limited amount of live fire air-to-ground operations are conducted to certify end-to-end handling and delivery systems from aircraft carriers in a realistic tactical environment.”
They said the live-fire part of the battle group training would happen in January for three to four days.