DATE=10/26/1999 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=UNREADY FLEET (L) NUMBER=2-255497 BYLINE=JIM RANDLE DATELINE=PENTAGON CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: The Admiral who leads the U-S Navy says a key part of the fleet may not be ready for combat and may not be fit for operations in Iraqi waters. The Chief of Naval Operations says the problem is that a political fight is blocking training for pilots aboard a U-S aircraft carrier. As V-O-A's Jim Randle reports, the comments came during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. TEXT: Under persistent questioning from Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, Admiral Jay Johnson said he will consider keeping the U-S-S Eisenhower in home waters instead of sending it to enforce the no- fly zones over Iraq. The Admiral gave no indication that such an action is likely, only that he would consider it. The Eisenhower's pilots are scheduled for training soon at the bombing range on the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques. But the practice range has been closed since last April, when a stray bomb killed a security guard employed at the range. Since that time, Puerto Rican activists have been camping in the middle of the practice range, demanding an end to the Navy's training and vowing to block bombs with their bodies. Puerto Rican political leaders have told prior congressional hearings that the protest enjoys nearly unanimous support from people in the Commonwealth. /// Opt /// Puerto Rico, a former Spanish colony, is a commonwealth of the United States. Its residents are U-S Citizens, but do not have voting representation in Congress, or pay U-S federal taxes. /// End Opt /// Military officers say it is "foolish and dangerous" to send pilots into combat without first honing their skills to a sharp edge. Carrier-based pilots are among the forces that fly daily combat missions over Iraq, where they often encounter antiaircraft missiles and respond with bombs. Admiral Johnson says no other place offers the realistic kind of training that has been done at Vieques for more than half a century. /// Johnson Act /// Patchwork would have to be done if you don't have the opportunity in December. And then we have to assess the risk and make the decision there. It will be a tough decision. /// End Act /// The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of Virginia, says he will hold special hearings to determine if the Eisenhower is ready to go into combat situations as scheduled early next year. Mr. Warner says he is so concerned by the issue that he will call senators to Washington during a congressional recess if necessary. Meantime, Defense Secretary William Cohen is considering a recommendation from a panel of experts that the Navy be allowed to resume bombing practice on Vieques, but find a new target range within five years. Mr. Cohen says he will examine the issue and make his own recommendation to the President. He has asked military commanders and Puerto Rican political leaders to talk over the matter and see if they can work out some sort of compromise. (Signed). NEB/JR/LTD/JP 26-Oct-1999 13:48 PM EDT (26-Oct-1999 1748 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .