The Navy, overruling two top commanders, has decided not to let the USS John F. Kennedy battle group train on the island of Vieques before deploying this month for the Arabian Sea near Afghanistan.
Citing the war on terrorism, Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. James Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, had asked Navy Secretary Gordon England to permit limited live-fire training for the Kennedy armada on the Puerto Rican island. The Puerto Rican governor had urged him to deny the request.
Gov. Sila M. Calderon apparently has won.
Navy officials said yesterday the carrier Kennedy will not train on Vieques before departing. Instead, pilots and gun crews will use ranges in Virginia and North Carolina.
“The battle group will not use Vieques,” Capt. Mike Brady, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet, said in response to questions from The Washington Times. “All exercises will be at training ranges on the East Coast. The Kennedy battle group will not use Vieques.”
Capt. Brady said it is not unusual for a battle group to skip Vieques in a final tuneup before deploying overseas. He said the Kennedy task force ships were able to conduct preliminary exercises there in the fall using dummy ammunition. Training has been limited to less-realistic inert bombs under an agreement between Puerto Rico and the Clinton administration.
However, both Adm. Clark and Gen. Jones thought enough of the value of live-fire training for the Kennedy in January at Vieques that they sent a private letter to Mr. England this fall asking for permission.
“Their crews would benefit greatly from live-fire practice achieved over a three-four day period at Vieques,” the two said in a jointly signed letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “This would ensure that our sailors and Marines can train under combat conditions as they prepare for deployment operations which may call for direct action missions in the war on terrorism.”
Capt. Frank Thorpe, a spokesman for Adm. Clark, said yesterday, “The CNO has great confidence in [the Atlantic Fleet commander’s] plan to ensure we deploy the JFK battle-ready.”
The Navy declined to comment on what spokesman called “private communication.” Capt. Brady said yesterday he had not seen the letter to Mr. England and would not comment.
The Kennedy is scheduled to leave its home port in Mayport, Fla., in mid-January, two months ahead of schedule. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who as head of U.S. Central Command is running the war in Afghanistan, wants at least two carrier battle groups on station in the Arabian Sea. By leaving early, the Kennedy can relieve the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on station without the Roosevelt having to extend its six-month deployment, Navy officials said.
Kennedy aircraft may see action over Afghanistan, where Navy aircraft have conducted the bulk of the tactical missions. Somalia and Iraq are also known terrorist-harboring states and could face air strikes.
Two carriers, the USS Roosevelt, and West Coast-based USS John C. Stennis, are now operating in the Arabian Sea. Two other carriers in the region, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Kitty Hawk, had been in the Arabian Sea and are returning to their home ports.
Vieques has been a hot political topic for Congress, President Clinton and now President Bush.
Puerto Rican activists, joined by many leading liberal Democrats, including members of the Kennedy family, demonstrated outside the range, demanding an immediate end to practice bombing.
The Navy, and pro-military members of Congress, say the training is essential.
Mr. Bush, in a decision critics linked to his desire to garner Hispanic votes, announced earlier this year that the Navy must find alternative training sites by 2003.
Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, is now searching for new sites, including ranges in North Carolina and Virginia.
The Kennedy and its air wing will depart with a partial battle group of cruisers, destroyers, an oiler and an attack submarine. Remaining ships will leave the United States as originally scheduled in mid-March.
Capt. Brady said the decision to send the Kennedy to other training sites does not mean the Navy is abandoning Vieques before the deadline of May 1, 2003.
“Right now, we don’t have a suitable replacement for it, so I would anticipate we would use it again,” he said. “We have not made a decision yet with regard to future training.”
The carrier Kennedy was in the news last month. The Navy fired its commanding officer after an inspection board found a rash of operational failures. “The ship was seriously degraded in her ability to conduct air operations,” said a report by a Navy Board of Inspection and Survey.
“Three of four aircraft elevators were out of commission, two of four catapults were degraded and the overall flight deck fire-fighting capability was seriously degraded,” the report said.
Capt. Brady said the new commander is correcting the problems in time for a January deployment.