There's gold in them thar' training sites. That was the message a high-ranking Navy official sent last week as he spoke to an audience in Florida, a state that, like North Carolina, is slated to host higher levels of flight and bomb training as the military moves out of Vieques, Puerto Rico. On that small island, the Navy and Marines have hammered away for decades, littering the landscape with bomb craters, unexploded ordnance and toxic waste. After years of protests and civil disobedience by Puerto Rican activists, President Bush pledged last year to shut down the extensive training operations at Vieques by May 2003.
That training will have to go somewhere, likely the U.S mainland, according to the Defense Department. Much of it, if things go according to current plans, will be relocated to sites along the North Carolina coast, and some of it already has been. (See the Independent article from last summer, "Incoming! North Carolina Tops the Military's Target List for New Bomb Sites," online at www.indyweek.com.)
Proposals for moving the Vieques operations here are a bitter pill for many Eastern North Carolina communities, because they already grapple with more than their share of noise and danger from longstanding jet and bomb exercises. Some of them have had enough. During the last year, for example, six N.C. counties clustered near the Virginia border banded together to lobby against Navy plans for locating new "Super Hornet" landing strips in their vicinity. The jets, which will be based in Norfolk, are exceedingly loud, and the counties have argued that the sound of more planes screaming through the skies will disturb tourism and retiree business, two of the region's economic lifelines.
Perhaps because of this nascent resistance, the Defense Department is gearing up for the hard sell and floating arguments that more military training will bring economic benefits. "I intend to take a lot of investment that we had heretofore earmarked and utilized for bases in Puerto Rico ... [and] translate that investment into this state and the other states," said Navy Adm. Robert Natter, chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, at an Oct. 15 Rotary Club meeting in Pensacola, Fla., in remarks that went nearly unnoticed here. He also suggested that hosting more operations will make training sites more resilient to future rounds of base closures.
Key among the "other states," of course, is North Carolina. For example, the Dare County bombing range, which sits in the midst of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the sites that is seeing more action during the Vieques draw-down.
Such operations are crucial, whatever the cost, the military argues. "I don't intend to sink because we have to leave Vieques," Natter said. "We're going to be deploying combat-ready forces." His comments are in line with recent Congressional testimony from all branches of the military, which have argued that "environmental encroachments," including civilian protests, are hampering training operations and therefore military readiness. And readiness, they say, should be sacrosanct.
That's a powerful argument, especially as the United States continues to wage the war on terrorism. But it's not enough to sway skeptical counties, so more arguments may be necessary, and Natter's mention of the financial incentives of increased training is apparently one of them. Do the payoffs of increased military training keep pace with the costs? That's not the predominant view in Vieques. North Carolinians should start asking themselves why.