The United States Navy and the United Stated Marine Corps use the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility for an array of training including the training of F/A-18 and F-14 pilots for live ordnance delivery and amphibious assault landings by the Marine Corps.
The decision to close the Vieques Island complex is an example of the reduction in options to satisfy training requirements. No single location had been identified that provides the integrated training scenario available at Vieques. The limited workaround options of traveling to locations distantly removed from the home station for training are limited by the austere budget climate and the demand for use by units permanently stationed at those locations. The decline in budget authority, increased operational and personnel tempo made frequent deployments to training facilities on the West coast a non-viable option. As a temporary workaround, the Navy reached agreement with the Air Force to use the Eglin range complex in northwest Florida to conduct some of the training previously performed at Vieques. Live ordnance delivery and gunfire training cannot be performed at Eglin, thus the required training is limited.
The Navy bought approximately 2/3 of the land area in Vieques in 1942 at a fair market price, primarily from large sugar plantation owners. This was in preparation to send forces into combat and as a bulwark against the onslaught of Nazi U-boats, which had destroyed over a million tons of Allied shipping in the Atlantic in a few short years. It was in the midst of some of the darkest hours of World War II, where the Japanese Imperial Navy had conquered large swaths of the Eastern Pacific, including Southeast Asia and millions of square miles of ocean and small islands. The Nazi war machine had effectively evicted the Allies from the European Continent, with Britain and the Soviet Union both struggling to hold on.
The Navy continued to train in Vieques for decades, preparing for every major conflict the U.S. has been involved in. The Navy's success in every corner of the globe as "America's 911" force can be attributed to the training Sailors and Marines had received there. Vieques provides the most vigorous and realistic training that allows the Navy to certify forces as combat-ready. This facility, in the only location in the Atlantic where realistic multidimensional training can be conducted, has been safely operated for 58 years without a single off- range accident.
Vieques is outside the path of commercial airline flights, military pilots can deliver live air-to-ground ordnance from the same altitudes they would in combat, aiming at realistic and challenging targets. Ships can operate in deep water within gunfire range of land-based targets without interfering with commercial shipping traffic. Water depths drop to more than 70 feet just 1.5 nautical miles from Vieques' shoreline. Beaches and land formations on Vieques permit Marine amphibious landing operations.
Vieques is within 10 miles of the large port and Naval station of Roosevelt Roads. The base permits supply and refueling of ships, provides an emergency landing site for exercise aircraft, and houses the range control center, necessary radar and communications facilities for operations at Vieques. Roosevelt Roads contributes thousands of civilian and military workers, and billions of dollars of infrastructure, to support Vieques operations.
The Vieques range provides acreage large enough to permit the maneuver of Marine forces, and aerial and ship gunfire, without danger to the adjacent civilian population. Some of these attributes could be found elsewhere. But they are almost never found in the same place. Together they enable aircraft carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups to come to grips with training for war.
The Navy owns approximately two-thirds of Vieques Island. The Naval Ammunition Facility (NAF) covers some 8,000 acres on the western end of the island. The Inner Range of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF) on the eastern end of Vieques includes the 11,000 acre Eastern Maneuver Area (EMA) and the 900 acre Live Impact Area (LIA). There are approximately 9,300 United States citizens who reside in the Municipality of Vieques in the area between the NAF on the West and the Inner Range on the East. More than half of the 22,000 acres owned by the Navy in Vieques is managed in a conservation status with extensive programs for endangered species. The Navy provides security for endangered species against poaching and boat traffic, and devotes significant resources to developing scientific knowledge and databases concerning such species.
The Vieques Weapons Range [the Live Impact Area], on the eastern tip of the island, comprises approximately 900 acres, less than 3 percent of the total land-mass of the island. This small weapons range is the only location on the island where bombs and naval gunfire are used for training. The Navy reports that the Inner Range is used approximately 180 days a year, with two-thirds of total time devoted to advanced phase training involving major fleet and Joint Task Force exercises. The other one-third of training days involves use by US and Allied ships and aircraft and by other Services such as US Air Force attack and strike aircraft and the special operations forces of several Services. This training complex is located on the far Eastern tip of Vieques, more than eight miles from the nearest town. In nearly 60 years of range operations, not one civilian living or working off the range has ever been killed or placed at risk.
Vieques is one of 56 Department of Defense live-fire ranges. Other communities in the United States have residents living closer to a weapons range that the residents of Vieques. The civilian population of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for example, lives a mere 1 ½ miles away from the target zone, while the towns surrounding the major military live-fire ranges of Eglin Air Force Base and Pinecastle, both in Florida are 7 and 8 miles away from the live-impact areas, respectively.
The Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF) is located on the eastern end of Vieques Island, PR. Use of this naval installation is important to achieving acceptable levels of military readiness in accordance with established training standards and requires training exercises conducted with inert ordnance. Such training exercises cannot be safely or effectively conducted if there are unauthorized persons inside the training areas or if the installation is damaged or personnel are injured. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has established a danger zone in the vicinity of the bombing and gunnery target area that is in effect during these training exercises. The Army Corps has also established a restricted area off the coast of the naval facility.
Puerto Ricans say they want the ships, planes and bombs gone from Vieques Island immediately and permanently, but the Navy and the Marines say training there is vital to maintaining US combat readiness.
In March 1978 the Governor of Puerto Rico filed suit to enjoin the United States Navy from using portions of lands it owned on Vieques and in the water surrounding the island for the purposes of carrying out Navy training operations. In January 1981 the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico denied the Commonwealth's request for a comprehensive injunction.
In 1983, in an attempt to resolve a lawsuit from the Government of Puerto Rico primarily relating to economic development concerns on Vieques, the Navy signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with then Governor Carlos Romero-Barcelo, now Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C. Under the terms of the agreement, the Navy was principally tasked to work with the Government of Puerto Rico to assist in the economic development of Vieques. Over the course of the next ten years, the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy supported over 50 economic development projects to assist the residents of Vieques. Most of these business ventures failed however, due to natural disasters such as Hurricane Hugo, tyranny of distance in getting raw materials and goods back and forth from mainland Puerto Rico and a limited island infrastructure. Despite these setbacks, the Navy still enjoyed a comfortable relationship with its neighbors in Vieques and Puerto Rico, as a perennial leader in hurricane disaster relief and largest employer in Eastern Puerto Rico.
In April 1999, a civilian security guard, employed by the Navy and well within naval property, was killed when an F/A-18 Hornet missed its target and accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs by an observation post. Since this accident, the live bombing was discontinued and protesters from all 3 major Puerto Rican political parties occupied the range, demanding that the Navy cease and desist from Vieques. Furthermore, in July of 2000, President Clinton ordered Secretary of Defense William Cohen to establish a Special Panel on Military Operations on Vieques in order to discuss its future use for military training.
On February 1, 2000 President Clinton announced that a compromise had been agreed to by the Governor and the Navy. The agreement called for the resumption of inert bombing in exchange for $40 million in housing and infrastructure aid for Puerto Rico. Furthermore, a referendum is to be held within 270 days of May 1, 2001, with the citizens on Vieques to be given two choices. The first would be a Navy exit from the island, with all lands transferred back to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The second choice on the referendum would be an option to be crafted by the Navy. Should the Viequenses choose the Navy's option, the President would then request Congressional approval for an additional $50 million in aid. On October 31, 2000, an amended version of the agreement became law as part of the Defense Authorization Bill for FY2001.
In accordance with the 2001 Defense Authorization Act, the Navy turned over 8,148 acres of land on the western end of Vieques to the Municipality of Vieques, the Department of the Interior and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Installations and Facilities) Duncan Holaday has conveyed 8,148 acres of Navy land located at the western end of Vieques to the Municipality of Vieques, the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, and the Department of Interior. The transfer of land was required under Title XV of the 2001 Defense Authorization Act, which directed the Secretary of the Navy to convey various portions of the Naval Ammunition Support Detachment (NASD) Vieques to the three organizations. The Municipality of Vieques is receiving 4,248 acres in the interest of promoting timely economic development of the property and to promote employment opportunities. The US Navy is also transferring 3,100 acres to the Department of the Interior. This land was previously preserved by the Navy as conservation zones pursuant to the 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Secretary of the Navy. The property will be managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, an agency under the Department of the Interior, and will serve as a wildlife refuge under the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966. Finally, the US Navy is conveying 800 acres to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust for management under a cooperative agreement between the Secretary of the Interior, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust for long-term protection and preservation of the nature resources of the lands. This acreage will be managed in the same protective manner as the former conservation zones.
In March 2000, the Navy began ordnance relocation at Naval Ammunition Support Detachment (NASD) Vieques in preparation for the transfer of approximately eight thousand acres of Federal property on the western end of Vieques Island to the Government of Puerto Rico by December 31, 2000. The land transfer is outlined in the January 31 Presidential Directive regarding U.S. Navy training on Vieques Island. The directive also provides for the Navy to maintain 100 acres of land in Western Vieques in conjunction with the existing radar and telecommunication sites. With the closing of the Naval Ammunition Storage facility on western Vieques Island, the Navy may no longer need the OB/OD Units at AFWTF for regular destruction (i.e., "treatment") of deteriorated or obsolete military munitions as Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous wastes.
In June 2000 U.S. forces resumed training exercises on Vieques for the first time in over a year. Pursuant to the President's agreement with the Governor of Puerto Rico, only inert bombs are currently being used. After having indicated, however, that all training exercises on the island would cease by 2003, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England announced that the White House and the Department of Defense would seek legislation to nullify the current requirement to conduct the referendum in Puerto Rico.
On 27 April 2001, the Navy conducted training at Vieques. In keeping with the limitations established in the Presidential Directives of 31 January 2000, the training used only non-explosive ordnance on the range. Elements of the USS ENTERPRISE and USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT Battle Groups conducted naval surface fire support and air-to-ground ordnance training from April 27 through May 1, 2001. The training was conducted after Federal Courts in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia refused to issue temporary restraining orders against the Navy.
In mid-December 2001 House and Senate Armed Services Committee members agreed to eliminate the referendum in Vieques on whether the Navy should stay or go. They also eliminated the May 2003 deadline for the Navy to leave the training facility. The new plan, also includes a new provision before the Navy can leave Vieques: Three top officers in the Navy and Marine Corps must certify in writing that they have identified alternative training sites that are just as good as Vieques.
In early January 2002 the Navy has decided that the USS John F. Kennedy battle group would not train at island of Vieques prior to deploying for the Arabian Sea near Afghanistan. Instead, ships and aircraft used ranges in Virginia and North Carolina.
On 01 April 2002 ships and aircraft of the USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Battle Group commenced use of the Vieques Island inner range in conjunction with their Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX). The exercise also utilized the Northern and Southern Puerto Rican Operating Areas and will involve complex battle group training events, naval surface fire support training and air-to-ground bombing. COMPTUEX is an intermediate level battle group exercise designed to forge the Battle Group into a cohesive, fighting team. In accordance with presidential directives, all training on Vieques utilized inert (non-explosive) ordnance.
In the early 1990s the Navy began planning to construct a Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar (ROTHR) in Puerto Rico. The ROTHR would be part of a surveillance network which designed to monitor flights over an area encompassing more than 1 million square miles in South America. The transmitter is planned for a 100 acre plot of land in Vieques. The preferred transmitter site was the Playa Grande site located on Navy property on the Southwestern coast of Vieques Island. The site for the receiver was originally planned to be located in the Lajas Valley but was changed to Fort Allen due to protest regarding the military's use of prime farmland and possible disruption of the community's irrigation system. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) addressing the impacts of the proposed ROTHR system was released to the public in July 1995. Public comments received on the DEIS included concerns over the loss of 100 acres of farmland at a candidate receiver site in Lajas Valley. Based on these concerns, the Department of the Navy re-evaluated potential sites for the ROTHR system.
The Department of the Navy announced on April 30, 2003, that is had transferred all real property on the eastern end of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico to the administrative jurisdiction of the Department of Interior as required under the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (Public Law 106-398), as amended by Section 1049 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002 (Public Law 107-107).
Under the law, Department of Interior is required to develop the land for use as a wildlife refuge, with the former live impact area to be designated a wilderness area and closed to the public. For 2003, $2.3 million has been designated for the Department of Interior to protect and conserve these natural resources. Additionally, Department of the Navy was to demolish and remove all temporary facilities and structures.
The Department of the Navy is to retain responsibility for the environmental cleanup of this property. The final extent and cost of the cleanup is linked to land use plans being developed by Department of Interior in compliance with the National Wildlife Refuge Act. The Department of the Navy will participate in future decisions and actions regarding the long-term environmental cleanup at Vieques.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|