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The Vieques Problem

By Jed Babbin

August 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WASHINGTON TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

     The recent referendum vote by Vieques island's residents to stop Navy live-fire training has no real effect. It's just another political kick in the teeth of military readiness. What makes this one worse than usual is that it's a direct result of President Bush's casual announcement of his decision to cease fire on the island by 2003.

     Mr. Bush chose to throw away the crown jewel of Navy training.

     Vieques, a small patch of ground off the east side of Puerto Rico, is about 80 square miles of nothing in particular, and has been the primary site for Navy live-fire training for 60 years. It's the only place in the Atlantic side of the world where all the pieces can work together, practicing with real bombs and bullets. And now the president has said it was his "attitude" that the Navy should find another place to train. Tough luck, squids, if there isn't one.

     There are too many things going wrong with defense, and so many promises Mr. Bush made in the election to fix those same things. And as the clock winds down on his first year in office, we're still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. All the promises of the presidential campaign seem to be on tomorrow's agenda. And tomorrow just never comes.

     The problem with the Vieques closing is not just that it's only politics that drove the decision. Politics drives almost all military decisions and has since the time of Caesar. But this time it was supposed to be different. This was Mr. Bush, not Mr. Clinton, and he took a blood oath to military strength and readiness. The admirals all said that without Vieques the Atlantic Fleet has no place to really exercise its air arm. And without these exercises, there can be no straight-faced claim of readiness.

     Teaching someone to fly a $50 million aircraft and drop bombs on people is just a tad complicated. (I refuse to give currency to the old joke that the only difference between a fighter pilot and a gorilla is that you don't spend $5 million to train a gorilla). If you want your pilot to get experience, and practice what he may have to do for real, odds are you don't want to just do the classroom work, then watch him take off and fly circles over the runway.

     Your guy's got to learn how to yank and bank, and how to drop heavy loads of ordnance in the right place without getting himself killed in the process. You have to learn how the aircraft handles when you pickle off a bomb and how to lob it — or slam it — into the target. And the only way you learn is by doing. And the only way you stay good at it, like anything else, is practice.

     For naval aviation, readiness is not just a matter of time in the air, or the number of bombs dropped on some range. When you want to measure the readiness of a carrier battle group, you don't measure it by playing computer games. What you do is take your battle group out of sight of land, and exercise the hell out of it.

     To exercise it for real, you do a whole bunch of things at once, and they can't all be done in an hour or two. You take a three or four-day period and you do all of the following, pretty much at once. Set a high threat level, and plan an attack. While you cruise along, spring some problems on your team. Simulate a threat for the anti-submarine guys to deal with, and let 'em loose. Form up an aggressor squadron, and have them make attack runs at the ships. At the same time, you'll be launching your Prowlers to clear and jam the bad guys over a target, launching your F-18s and F-14s on fighter defense and bomber offensive runs. You want your fly-guys to practice it all, so one carrier's fighters may have to cover their bombers and, at the same time, fly cover over the ships.

     Put a platoon or two of those guys who ride rubber boats at night onto the target beforehand, and let them blow something up. Next, you load a bunch of green faces onto their helos and fast landing craft and drop the Marines in a place where the bad guys are. They can launch about a battalion of these guys from the Landing Helicopter Assault ship that rides ahead of your carrier. And you cover their landing with naval gunfire, which is supposed to be able to coordinate with them.

     At the end of the couple of days, you know how well your people did, giving you information on where you're strong, and — more importantly — where you're weak. When you know what's broken, you can fix it.

     The problem with closing Vieques is that the Atlantic Fleet can't do this anywhere else. There are other places where you can practice landings, but not with live fire support from the air and naval gunfire. The Navy needs Vieques now, and for the foreseeable future.

     The president has made a fundamental mistake on Vieques, and the repercussions have just begun. It is a mistake that changes the tone of his presidency, because it breaks a big promise to us, and to the guys wearing the uniform. If things aren't turned around soon, Mr. Clinton's military will soon be Dubya's. And we won't be able to blame Li'l Billy any more.

     Jed Babbin is a former undersecretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.

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