ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN — Thousands of U.S. sailors are training again at Vieques — but aboard the vessels of the Harry S. Truman battle group there's a strong feeling that a ban on live ammunition has rendered the exercises woefully inadequate.
"I've got 100 kids, I've got to take them to war, and they're not trained," complained Lt. Juan Rodriguez, whose Mediterranean-bound bomb-assembly crews were busily arming jets with fake missiles but had yet to assemble a live explosive.
New rules banning live ammunition on the Puerto Rican island mean about 80 of the Truman's 250 fighter pilots will go abroad with no experience using live explosives, said air wing commander Capt. Rob Nelson.
F-18 pilot Jon Taylor, who flew bombing runs on Iraq in December 1998, worried that younger comrades may fly too low in a real attack, exposing themselves to fragments from their own bombs.
"I would not want to go through what I did without that (live weapons) training in Vieques," Taylor said.
For decades, the Navy prized Vieques as a unique site for combined air, sea and land exercises — its bombing range a key training ground for conflicts including the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But training was halted in April 1999 after a civilian guard was killed by stray bombs, inflaming passions and protests among the 9,400 people who live on the outlying island.
Critics claim decades of bombing — which occurs eight to 10 miles from civilian areas — have stunted development and tourism, harmed the environment and caused health problems.
President Clinton has pledged that the Navy will leave Vieques by May 2003 if residents so decide in a referendum, and both presidential candidates have promised to stand by the agreement.
Meanwhile, Clinton and the Puerto Rican government agreed in January that training could resume with restrictions, including a ban on live bombs and halving the number of annual training days to 90.
In May, the range was cleared of protesters who had camped out on the property for a year. These are the second large-scale exercises since then.
In the waters off Vieques are the Truman — which was commissioned in 1998 and will deploy for the first time in November — as well as two submarines and eight other ships. The Navy invited reporters to spend two days with the sailors — and their exasperation with the new rules was apparent.
"The training here is now inadequate," said Capt. Mike Smith of the USS Porter, a new guided missile destroyer.
On Monday, Smith's crew was given one day to fire 87 shells at the target range — a requirement before they can go to sea. By noon they had shot only 12 because of a glitch in the gun's computer. With the battle group so pressed for time, Smith watched tight-lipped as another destroyer replaced his ship on the firing line.
The gun malfunction didn't bother him, because he figured his crew could use the trouble-shooting practice. But he wanted them to be facing the danger of a real explosive shell, instead of a concrete-filled dummy round.
"They will go through the same procedures, but in the back of their minds they know this thing will never blow up," Smith said. "I can't simulate the stress of combat with a piece of concrete."
The spotters who grade the pilots also have cause to complain.
On Tuesday, spotters Kyle Bahl and William Duncan squinted skyward as F-18s dropped 500-pound dummy bombs on Vieques from 16,000 feet. The bombs were invisible against the sky, and there was no cloud of dust when the bombs hit because heavy rains had soaked the range.
Smaller dummy bombs have smoke cartridges to aid spotting, but not the 500-pounders. Of four dummy bombs dropped on an imaginary fuel depot, Bahl and Duncan saw only one hit the ground.
"You have no idea whether they hit the target," Bahl said after giving the pilots the news. "You can't give them any positive feedback."
Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, serve in the Navy. Some of the ones here felt torn.
"I think it's time to go somewhere else," said Jose Joaquin Garcia, an aviation electrician. "I know we need to do training, but when you're causing conflict within your own people, then it's time to look at another place."
But Rodriguez said his Puerto Rican origins made no difference: "I wish I could bomb the heck out of Vieques."