WASHINGTON — The Navy will expand its use of bombing ranges in Florida and elsewhere on the U.S. mainland -- and may close Roosevelt Roads naval station in Puerto Rico -- after it abandons its training grounds on Vieques in May, officials said Friday.
The base has been the largest employer in Puerto Rico.
"Without Vieques there is no way I need the Navy facilities at Roosevelt Roads -- none," said Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet. "It's a drain on Defense Department and taxpayer dollars."
Other Navy officials, however, said privately that any decision to close Roosevelt Roads would have to be made by an independent commission, as required by Congress, in 2005. Once the Navy leaves Vieques, however, all operations at Roosevelt Roads associated with the Puerto Rican island will be discontinued, the officials said.
Roosevelt Roads is home to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, a Navy hospital and many other Navy facilities. Roosevelt Roads isn't the home port of any ships, but hundreds use its facilities each year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the base built in 1940 and it was used for World War II naval operations.
One Roosevelt Roads tenant not associated with the Navy is Southern Command's special operations headquarters.
The Navy estimates that Roosevelt Roads contributes about $250 million a year to Puerto Rico's economy.
When the Navy leaves Vieques, the 15,587 acres it used will be transferred to the Interior Department, not to Puerto Rico. A 900-acre section near the eastern tip of the island where live bombs were dropped will be off-limits indefinitely to people and wildlife because of environmental hazards.
Navy officials on Friday formally notified Congress that they had certified alternatives to Vieques for conducting live-fire operations and other training. In a brief announcement, Navy Secretary Gordon England said he was satisfied that Navy and Marine Corps training will be adequate without Vieques, and said the Navy plans to invest more than $400 million in coming years to improve training and develop existing ranges.
The Navy has used Vieques as its main Atlantic Coast training range for more than 50 years, but it has been hindered by protests stemming from an April 1999 bombing accident that killed a civilian security guard. In January 2000, the Clinton administration set a May 2003 target date for withdrawing from Vieques, but Congress required the Navy to certify that alternative training sites were at least as good as Vieques.
For years the Navy and Marine Corps asserted there were no satisfactory alternatives to Vieques, considered the crown jewel of training facilities for naval air and amphibious forces in the Atlantic Fleet.
Many Puerto Ricans objected to the use of Vieques, citing environmental and other risks.
Natter said technological advancements have made Vieques less important.
Technology also has lessened the Navy's reliance on fixed sites for training.
Natter said all carrier battle groups, for example, eventually will have a mobile computer-based system for simulating targets at sea. That will enable the ships to conduct that aspect of training while operating virtually anywhere.
Among the main sites certified by England as "equivalent or superior" to Vieques:
* Pinecastle naval bombing range in Florida's Ocala National Forest near Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
* Avon Park Air Force range in south-central Florida.
* Eglin Air Force Base, about seven miles from Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle.
* Tyndall Air Force Base, just east of Panama City, Fla.
* At-sea Navy ranges off Key West and Pensacola, Fla.
* Townsend Bombing Range in McIntosh County, Ga.
* Two Marine Corps bases in North Carolina: Cherry Point air station and Camp Lejeune.