WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) spoke on the Senate floor last night on how the departure of the U.S. military from Puerto Rico beginning in 2003 has contributed to the country's economic turmoil and discussed the strategic importance of reopening the military range on the island of Vieques. As Inhofe highlighted in his speech, Vieques is the only range in the Western Hemisphere that could accommodate naval surface, aviation and artillery live ordnance delivery, and he quoted Defense Department officials who have testified before Congress stating that the end of military operations at Vieques has resulted in a loss of critical combat training essential to the United States’ Navy and Marine forces
The following is Inhofe's floor speech as prepared for delivery:
The readiness of our military depends on several factors to include personnel, equipment and training.
Their success or failure when sent into combat is a direct function of the degree and realistic training they receive before combat.
Their ability to conduct live, joint operations is critical to battlefield success, and preservation of the ranges our military trains ensures that success.
One of those ranges was on the island of Vieques, the only range in Western Hemisphere with land, sea and airspace that could accommodate naval surface, aviation and artillery live ordnance delivery with amphibious landings supported by naval fires, all conducted in a realist joint training environment.
From World War II through operations in Kosovo, our military has been ready to execute combat operations due to training such as that afforded on the island of Vieques.
In April 1999, following an accident on Vieques training range that resulted in the death of a Navy civilian employee, all training activities at that range were suspended, and in May 2003, the Navy ended all training operations.
Numerous DoD officials have testified before Congress that the loss of training at the Vieques range has resulted in a loss of critical combat training essential to the Nation's Navy and Marine forces and would increase risk to our Sailors and Marines.
Secretary Richard Danzig, then Secretary of the Navy, said “Only by providing this preparation can we fairly ask our service members to put their lives at risk.”
Admiral Johnson, then Chief of Naval Operations, and General Jones, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, said Vieques provides integrated live-fire training “critical to our readiness,'' and the failure to provide for adequate live-fire training for our naval forces before deployment will place those forces at unacceptably high risk during deployment.
Admiral Ellis, then Director of Operations, Plans, and Policies on the staff of the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet said during his confirmation hearing to be commander of Strategic Command, “Those types of facilities, particularly those in which we can bring together all of the naval, and that means both Navy and Marine Corps, combat power for integrated and joint training are particularly useful elements of the overall warfighting preparation.”
Admiral Fallon, then commander of the Navy's Second Fleet, and General Pace, then commander of all Marine Forces in the Atlantic, testified that the U.S. needs Vieques as a training ground to prepare our young men and women for the challenges of deployed military operations.
General Wes Clark, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe said, “The live fire training that our forces were exposed to at training ranges such as Vieques helped ensure that the forces assigned to this theater”
What he was talking about was Kosovo, our forces were ready-on-arrival and prepared to fight, win and survive.
Captain James Stark, Jr., then commanding officer of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, said “When you steam off to battle you're either ready or you're not. If you're not, that means casualties. That means more POWs. That means less precision and longer campaigns. You pay a price for all this in war, and that price is blood.”
Admiral Murphy, then Commander of the Sixth Fleet of the Navy, said the loss of training on Vieques would “cost American lives.''
We are talking about American blood – American lives unnecessary put at risk if they are not fully trained prior to combat operations.
This week, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee will consider legislation that provides bankruptcy powers to Puerto Rico while subjecting it to the authority of a federal oversight board.
Puerto Rico owes $73 billion in government debt.
In January, Puerto Rico started defaulting on part of that debt.
Section 411 of this legislation would turn over approximately 3,100 acres of Department of Interior conservation zones that were formerly part of Vieques range.
When the Navy left Vieques Roosevelt Roads, it took with them over 2,500 military personnel, over 2,000 family members, and impacted more than 2,500 civilian employees.
The total economic impact from the Navy was estimated to be $600 million per year in 2003.
The departure of the Navy also impacted businesses, contracts, and depressed housing prices, severely impacting the total economy of Vieques.
The good news is the residents of Vieques and the citizens of Puerto Rico still have the opportunity to play a significant role in the Nation's defense.
Our military is facing a readiness crisis and it needs ranges like Vieques to train it in full spectrum joint operations.
We must ensure they are prepared for the next fight against a near peer competitor that will demand the full strength of our joint force.
There is still no range like Vieques in the Western Hemisphere – what can be done at Vieques cannot be done at one location by the joint force.
I understand firsthand both the importance and significance of having a range in your home state.
On 3 May 2000, I was on Crossfire with Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. He said, “This isn't about status. This is a question of, if this existed in the Florida Keys, or if this was in New York or even in your home state, do you think that 60 years of target practice is enough? Is that enough of a contribution. How much are people expected to pay?”
My reply, “Are you aware that Fort Sill, Oklahoma has a live range that operates 320 days out of the year. The most day that Vieques ever operated was 180 days. We are within a population of 100,000 people, with a three-mile buffer zone. You have a 10-mile buffer zone and only 9,000 people. And you talk about this happening in the Florida Keys -- this is my state of Oklahoma.”
I think we have an opportunity to help both Puerto Rico and our nation by taking a serious look at reopening Vieques.