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February 2002 Update on US Navy Presence in Vieques, Puerto Rico

February 2002 Update on US Navy Presence in Vieques, Puerto Rico


By Vice-Admiral John Shanahan (ret) and John Lindsay-Poland

The Navy’s need to use the populated island of Vieques, Puerto Rico is a disputed issue.

The Navy leadership has declared repeatedly that Vieques is irreplaceable for training U.S. naval forces. “Vieques is absolutely critical to the readiness, training, and preparation of our forces prior to their deployment overseas,” Vice-Admiral William Fallon told a Congressional hearing in 1999. “It is the premier U.S. Naval training facility, reflecting more than 50 years of investment and development, and the only place available to East Coast based forces for training in several warfare competencies which are essential combat readiness; most importantly live ordnance combined arms training,” concluded a 1999 study by Admiral Fallon and General Peter Pace.

Yet many people, including civilians and uniformed officers inside the Navy, do not agree. In 2001, Navy Secretary Gordon England did an abrupt about-face, and declared that training on Vieques can and will be conducted at other sites. Some Congressional observers expressed skepticism at the secretary’s position, implying that it was taken for political or electoral reasons. At this writing, no executive order or legislation requires the Navy to leave Vieques. Other sources address the environmental, health, civil rights, sovereignty, and international political aspects of the Vieques-Navy conflict. This issue brief examines whether Vieques is needed by the Navy for military reasons, within the premises of U.S. foreign policy.


This issue brief reviews the Navy activities conducted at Vieques, and argues that Vieques is not critical to naval readiness. The co-authors hold widely divergent approaches to national and global security. Vice-Admiral Shanahan (ret) served in the Navy from 1941 to 1977, including a tour as commander of the U.S. Second Fleet and the NATO Strike Fleet Atlantic, and trained and supervised training several times in Vieques. He recognizes the importance of realistic military training and firmly supports the Navy’s efforts to make sure that sailors and marines receive necessary training to face this Nation’s current and future security needs. Lindsay-Poland is a long-time activist and writer on human rights and U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. He believes the nation’s security will be served most realistically by a recognition of our global interdependence, by the rule of international law, and by creative uses of diplomacy, aid, and empathy. Both authors, however, agree from their different approaches that under current doctrine Vieques has little to contribute – even with the demands placed on the Navy by the current war.

In fact, from a military perspective, taking the time to sail to Vieques for Naval Gun Fire Support and cross beach amphibious training is a waste of time, energy and material resources, given the changed nature of warfare as demonstrated in Afghanistan. Even the John F. Kennedy battle group, which prepared to deploy in February 2002, by-passed Vieques. The reason, suggests Vice-Admiral Shanahan, is that the Kennedy needed more time in port to prepare for the new kind of challenge facing her, and cannot carry out those preparations in Vieques.


What training occurs on Vieques?

Three training components are performed on Vieques: (1) Marine amphibious landings, coordinated with supporting naval, air and artillery fire, which take place on Camp Garcia beaches; (2) naval surface fire support (NSFS) from Navy ships stationed off the Vieques coast; and (3) air-to-ground (ATG) bombing from Navy and Marine Corps aircraft launched from carriers onto the Live Impact Area (several miles from Camp Garcia). The ATG strikes trained in Vieques are magazine-to-target, live ordnance bombing, often from a high altitude. These components are sometimes combined in Joint Task Force Exercises (JTFEX), large-scale, multi-dimensional exercises that attempt to play out realistic war scenarios. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Navy trained an average of 180 days a year on Vieques, and dropped or fired an average of 1,464 tons of bombs and high explosive ordnance on Vieques a year.

Missle launched near Vieques, August 2001.
Navy Photo

It is important to point out that, in addition to using the firing range on Vieques (also known as the Inner Range), the Navy uses nearly 200,000 square miles of open-ocean firing range, extending nearly from Puerto Rico to Venezuela; this large area is known as the Outer Range. In the Outer Range, pilots practice bombing using live ammunition and the Navy and its contractors test a variety of missiles, communication systems, and other weapons.

Key Points

• The Navy can and does use other sites to train instead of Vieques.

• Amphibious and naval firing tactics practiced on Vieques are not used in today’s warfare.

• The Navy’s Pacific Fleet has no range comparable to Vieques, yet is considered to be fully trained.

Alternatives to the Vieques Inner Range already exist

Recent history demonstrates the existence of alternatives to Vieques. The Navy did not use the range there for more than a year between April 1999 and May 2000. During that time, when the Navy used ranges in North Carolina (Cherry Point and Camp LeJeune), Florida (Eglin Air Force Base), Italy (Capo Teulada, Sardinia) and Scotland (Cape Wrath), every carrier group deployed with a fully acceptable rating. Even after inert bombing resumed on Vieques in June 2000, the Navy continued to use other, more extensive ranges for its exercises (including the JTFEX, which some claimed could only be conducted on Vieques).

The Navy uses hundreds of firing ranges in the United States and around the world. This map shows firing ranges that have been used instead of Vieques for Navy and Marine Corps training.

In late January 2002, the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier battle group was scheduled to carry out joint task force exercises in and around Vieques, before replacing the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Afghanistan war theater. In early January, however, the Navy announced that the Kennedy’s training would instead take place in Virginia and North Carolina; in the announcement the Navy stated that training in Vieques was not needed for war preparations, and in fact would delay the battle group unnecessarily. Perhaps the Navy has discovered that the nature of warfare has really changed since 11 September, and that Vieques is no longer suitable as a training site when the weapons of choice are large smart bombs – a weapon which should under no circumstances be dropped on the inhabited island, whether explosive or inert. In any case, it is difficult to sustain the idea that Vieques is indispensable for training, when the Navy can and does use other ranges in the midst of a hot war.

In its August 2000 study, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) affirmed that the Navy can carry out all of its Vieques training in already existing bases along the east coast. “With improvements, the [Virginia Capes] VACAPES complex could become comparable to Vieques in terms of the quality of tactical training it offers, while being superior to Vieques in two important ways,” the CNA study concluded. “It is closer to Norfolk where most Atlantic Fleet forces are stationed and its future is less vulnerable to unfavorable political developments. VACAPES has one significant shortcoming in that it is not possible to exercise coordinated, tactical strikes and deliver live ordnance in a single training operation. That capability could be made available at Eglin [AFB], however.”

A recent Environmental Assessment by the Marine Corps of the use of Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for combined Marine/Navy training found it “would 1) save money associated with moving people, equipment, and ships to San Clemente Island or Vieques, 2) decrease the number of days personnel are deployed or are away from their homeport or unit by allowing them to train at or near home station, and 3) increase readiness by expanding frequency and opportunities for training.”

It is important to note that although the CNA study only considered existing ranges with facilities for amphibious landings (see below), and did not consider the potential for virtual or at-sea training, the study nevertheless concluded that existing facilities can replace Vieques.

Amphibious landings are militarily outdated by modern technology

Opposed cross-beach landings have not been used by U.S. forces since the Korean War. Today the marines travel by helicopter some 300-400 miles to reach their objective; therefore, ship to shore shelling using guns with a range of 12-13 miles – like those used in Vieques — is of little service.

Pentagon Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recognized the same truth in July 2001 when he said that “the long-range weapons of the future need a different kind of training range. And we’re going to have to take advantage of new technology to simulate the sort of environment in which we would operate… Vieques, within a matter of five to 10 years, would be completely obsolete. You cannot train with modern weapons on a World War II training basis.”

Opposed large scale cross-beach amphibious operations are outmoded because they expose troops unnecessarily to heavy casualties without providing significant advantages. This type of amphibious landing is so outdated that it can be compared to the Army practicing Cavalry charges. “In the Pacific campaign of World War II,” Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, a veteran of that campaign, writes, “the Navy employed 17 battleships plus countless cruisers and destroyers to pound defending forces for days with heavy-caliber guns before an assault began. There is not one heavy-caliber gun in service today.”

Navy/Marine Corps amphibious doctrine currently calls for a rapid movement of dispersed forces direct to the objective area with continuous sea-based logistical support, eliminating the need for extensive shore-based support. The Navy calls this doctrine Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS). OMFTS was developed in part in response to the development and proliferation of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), which can constitute a significant threat to amphibious groups and support forces remaining off shore. Some 70 nations now deploy sea and land launched ASCMs. OMFTS also takes advantage of surprise by remaining unseen for much longer periods of time.

The new amphibious doctrine calls for the airlifting of troops from over the horizon to the objective area, or to nearby existing airfields using helicopters or tilt-rotor (V-22) aircraft, while capitalizing on the element of surprise and ensuing chaos. Tactical fire support once on the ground is provided by carrier-based Navy/Marine Corps aircraft operating well beyond the objective areas.

Guns in the Fleet today have an effective range of about 13 nautical miles; when firing on Vieques they normally shoot from about 7-10 miles off shore. Yet this kind of NSFS is inconsistent with today’s doctrine – and should remain so, as long as U.S. ships are equipped with the short range 5”54 caliber gun. In actual combat situations the Navy typically gets no closer than 30-50 miles from shore, because of the risk of mines. It makes little sense from a tactical standpoint for the Navy to place such a high degree of importance on practicing close-range NSFS for the deployment of battle groups.

NSFS and close-in interdiction bombardment are also being made obsolete by technological advances in naval weapons. Missiles are the surface Navy’s weapon of choice because they are accurate, deliver a large payload, and can be launched from battle groups at safe distances under a cloak of surprise.

Once we recognize the obsolescence of close-in naval surface gunfire and of cross-beach amphibious landings, the training capacities offered by Vieques can no longer be considered unique or indispensable.

Pacific Fleet has no equivalent to Vieques

The Navy’s Pacific Fleet does not carry out the type of combined exercise that the Navy insists is essential and uniquely available on Vieques, yet no one claims that the Pacific Fleet is not fully capable of carrying out its mission. “The Pacific Fleet’s facilities are not able to provide the particular level of training possible at Vieques,” Lt. Commander Rafael E. Matos wrote in the Proceedings of the Naval War College in 1999, but “the Pacific Fleet is ready, however, and has not complained about a lack of realistic training… Their training facilities, including those in San Diego, Camp Pendleton, and Hawai’i, have been more than adequate to ensure a high level of readiness.”

The argument that the Navy needs Vieques in order to practice air-to ground and ship-to-shore bombing, during a Marine amphibious invasion, flies in the face of actual practice on Vieques. The marine amphibious training on Vieques occurs at the Camp Garcia beaches, miles away from the Live Impact Area. The Live Impact Area, as the name implies, provides for Naval Gun Fire Support and bombing runs. These two areas are separate; marines are not subjected to live fire as they cross the beach. The actions may occur at the same time, but they are not integrated. There is thus no reason why both could not be practiced elsewhere – as, in fact, they already are.

Vieques range too small to accommodate modern naval technology

The Vieques bombing range is too small to safely handle the powerful, long-distance missiles and bombs currently used by the Navy’s ships and planes. In Vieques the firing range is located on an impact area of just 900 acres, only 8.7 miles upwind of the civilian population, which is simply too dangerous for the Navy’s modern arsenal. By contrast, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, which is sometimes used in place of Vieques, has 724 square miles of land ranges. Unlike fire from ships and jets, artillery fire – such as take place in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to which Vieques is often compared — is much less prone to accidents because of the smaller distances and higher degree of control. An error of four seconds in fire from a ship can land up to 14 to 20 miles from the target, while a four-second error from an aircraft pilot could drop a bomb up to 50 miles from the target.

Because cross-beach amphibious operations and close-in naval fire are outmoded for naval warfare in this century, the Navy should abandon use of the Vieques Inner Range, and satisfy its minimal naval gunfire support and over-the-beach training requirements elsewhere.

The Navy should cease training activities on Vieques immediately. There is no need to wait until 2003, since even if one accepts a need for the types of training conducted at Vieques, there are other sites where it can be – and is – carried out.

Vice Admiral John Shanahan served as Commander of the U.S. Navy Second Fleet and the NATO Strike Fleet Atlantic. After retiring from the Navy, he was director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC. John Lindsay-Poland is director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean in San Francisco, CA.

This Vieques Issue Brief was edited by Dr. Déborah Santana, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College. It is one of a series published by the Fellowhship of Reconciliation.

Atlantic Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command, “Environmental Assessment, Shore Fire Control Party Feasibility Study, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, Onslow County, North Carolina,” September 2001, at

Captain John L. Byron, USN (ret), “Vieques: Get Over It,” Proceedings of the Naval War College, August 2001, at

Eugene J. Carroll, Rear Admiral (ret.), U.S. Navy, “Vieques not needed for Navy maneuvers,” Newsday, August 3, 2001.

Center for Naval Analyses (Alexandria, VA), Alternatives to Vieques, August 2000, at

Commander U.S. Second Fleet and Commander U.S. Marine Corps Forces Atlantic, The National Security Need for Vieques: A Study Prepared for the Secretary of the Navy, (Fallon/Pace report), July 15, 1999.

Juan Giusti-Cordero, “One-Stop Shopping for Navyfacts: A Response to the Navy’s Vieques Website,” August 17, 2000, at

Juan Giusti Cordero, “La Marina en la Mirilla,” in Humberto García Muñiz and Jorge Rodríguez Beruff (eds), Las Fronteras en Conflicto (San Juan: Red Caribeña de Geopolítica, 1999), pp. 133-201.

Lieutenant Commander Rafael E. Matos, U.S. Navy, “Nobody Asked Me, But… It’s Time To Return Vieques,” Proceedings of the Naval War College, October 1999, p. 76.

“Readiness Implications Concering the Atlantic Fleet Training Center, Vieques, Puerto Rico,” hearing before the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, 106th Cong., September 22, 1999, at

Paul Wolfowitz, News Transcript from the U.S. Department of Defense, July 29, 2001, at

For further information, including sources for this brief or additional copies, contact:

Fellowship of Reconciliation
Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean
2017 Mission St. #305, San Francisco, CA 94110
Tel: 415-495-6334

Single copies are available upon request, 20 for $10.


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