Bombing Range in Jeopardy U.S. Jousting with Puerto Rico over Island Site

Article excerpt

ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY -- The chest-pounding roar and face-burning blast of the twin furnaces that are the F-14 Tomcat's engines sweep across the carrier deck. The Navy fighter lurches before soaring into a misty sky.

About 40 aircraft swarm the skies 80 miles south of Puerto Rico as the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier's group -- 12 ships and submarines -- works out the kinks of full-scale war games before deploying to the Mediterranean in the fall.

Only one thing is missing: someplace to bomb. Puerto Rico's government is demanding the Navy abandon the outlying island of Vieques, used for training for every military operation since Vietnam, including Operation Desert Fox in Iraq and this year's Kosovo campaign.

The Navy argues that Vieques is the only Atlantic range where it can conduct full-blown land, sea and air games, with real munitions, under conditions that are closest to the real thing.

Without the island, Rear Adm. J. Michael Johnson worries his carrier battle group won't be fully combat-ready when the real games begin. "We're bombing the ocean," Johnson lamented recently. "You can't miss."

The recent controversy started when an accidental bombing by a Marine fighter killed a Navy-employed Puerto Rican civilian security guard April 19 on the Vieques bombing range, which has since been occupied by protesters.

President Clinton has appointed a panel to investigate what to do with Vieques, which the Navy has shared with civilians since 1941 and insists is vital to national security.

The panel's report isn't due until August. But the Navy, after months of criticism in the Puerto Rican media and protests by Puerto Rican officials, is taking the offensive.

Navy officials say commercial jet traffic restricts bombing other East Coast ranges. Vieques has no such barriers, essential in an era when smart weapons are fired from high altitudes or as far as 50 miles away. …