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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy (UPDATED)
Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy (UPDATED)
By Sandra I. Erwin

Since the Obama administration directed the U.S. military in 2012 to turn its attention to the Pacific region, Army leaders have made it known that they will not play second fiddle to their sister armed services in the so-called pivot to Asia.

Army officials were irked when the Navy and the Air Force teamed up and produced an "air-sea battle" concept that suggested the United States would rely primarily on naval and air assets to fight a major war in the Pacific Rim. Army leaders have countered that most Asian powers have strong land-based armies and that ground forces would be essential in any scenario.

A new study by an influential think tank suggests the Army will have a role in Southeast Asia, but mostly a peaceful one, at least through the next decade.

The immediate priorities for the Army in Asia should be to establish and nurture relationships with friendly militaries, and assist in natural disaster relief and humanitarian operations, says Peter Chalk, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp.

The study, titled, “The U.S. Army in Southeast Asia: Near-Term and Long-Term Roles," was funded by the U.S. Army deputy chief of staff in preparation for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.

"The current security environment in Southeast Asia is largely benign," Chalk writes. "There is practically no risk today of a major interstate war in the region."

There are few, if any, indicators that point to armed conflict in the region in the near term, the study says. Nearly every government has benefited from sustained economic growth and relative stability, and most of the non-state insurgencies and terrorist groups in Southeast Asia have been largely contained. "Compounding these positive facets is the lack of any meaningful external threat," says the report.

Politicians in Washington and generals at the Pentagon increasingly worry about China’s military buildup and the threat that might pose to the United States. But RAND takes a more nuanced view. “Although China is certainly seeking to extend its influence into Southeast Asia, it is doing so largely through ‘soft diplomacy’ and the consolidation of economic ties,” the study says. “The one exception is the South China Sea, where Beijing has steadily moved to more assertively assume its self-proclaimed sovereignty.”

In the context of a mostly benign environment, RAND suggests, the U.S. military should focus on bolstering partner nations, on helping to build multinational security agreements and on assisting allies with the procurement of equipment.

The Army also should work on securing new base agreements for hosting small U.S. expeditionary forces, the study says. “Deployments of this sort would help overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’ that has historically complicated U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, furnishing the Army with the opportunity for a more flexible and assertive regional presence.”

RAND recommends that the United States fund more tabletop exercises to help militaries in the region be better prepared for disaster relief efforts, provide more ground transport and airlift assets, and help to establish regional disaster relief coordination hubs.

The demands for U.S. military involvement in Asia, the RAND report says, “will remain largely consistent out to 2020.”

If a major crisis did occur, it would likely be as a result of economic collapse and energy shortages. “One of the biggest harbingers of change would be stalled or faltering economic growth as a result of a tighter global energy market,” the study says. Under this scenario, a conflict in the South China Sea is conceivable as nations moved to “more forcibly exert their presence in the area to secure vital untapped oil deposits.”

The Army, which is still fighting in Afghanistan and faces deep budget cuts at home, has struggled to articulate its future. Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno last year unveiled a plan to “regionally align” Army forces with combatant commanders in Asia and other parts of the world so they would be able to respond to crises on short notice.

The Army elevated the head of Army Pacific Command to a four-star position. The current commander, Gen. Vincent Brooks, has been studying ways to reposition troops so they are closer to critical areas. Most Army PACOM forces today are based in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington state. The Army announced a plan — called "Pacific pathways” — to rotate forces in and out of Asian locations, and soon will deploy 800 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Hood, Texas, to South Korea for a nine-month deployment.

Analysts see these moves as part of a broader effort by the Army to protect its share of the Pentagon budget, and some have criticized the Army for trying to reinvent itself as a Marine Corps-like expeditionary force. Odierno has pushed back on such assertions and insists there is no competition with the Marines or any other service.

The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, says he welcomes Army initiatives to redeploy forces from Afghanistan to Asia-Pacific.

The Army is “kind of new to the Asia Pacific," he says. After fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 years, it is looking for opportunities to put forces in Asia “in a meaningful way that allows them to partner with our allies,” Locklear tells reporters at a Pentagon news conference Jan. 23. “There are concepts like Pacific pathways that are being talked about,” he adds. “These are concepts at this point in time, but overall, I'm supportive of these initiatives.”

The Army sending additional troops to South Korea, he says, “got played out like it was a big strategic move, but in reality, it was just part of the pre-planned decision we had made in the alliance to make sure we had the most capable forces on the peninsula.”

U.S. military presence will be needed for both humanitarian and combat roles, says Locklear. He says about 80 percent of all natural disasters in recent years have happened in the Pacific Command region. At the same time, the Indo-Asia Pacific is the most militarized region in the world. “They're buying weapons, and they're buying 21st century weapons. They're not the same weapons systems that we dealt with 30 years ago.”

While China remains a concern to military planners, Locklear says he believes China has of late been using military forces in a “productive way.” Chinese forces last year helped with typhoon relief in the Philippines, and are participating more frequently in multilateral exercises. “As you go into the Gulf of Aden, they're operating further away from home and participating in the security of those particular regions,” says Locklear. “Our bilateral relationship … I would give it a passing grade for the last year.”

CLARIFICATION: A RAND analyst pointed out that the study cited in this post does not imply that all of Asia will be free of conflicts where U.S. interests could be at stake. He noted there are significant potential flash points in areas such as North Korea and South Asia (e.g., Pakistan, Kashmir)

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Re: Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy

Admiral Locklear's comment about the the Army being new to the Pacific are surprising inaccurate. I suggest he review the Army's paritcipation in the the PACOM exercise and engagement program over the last 10 plus years. Even at the height of deployments of pacific based Army units the Army was fully engaged in the pacific.
Benjamin R. Mixon, Lieutenant General US Army (Retired) at 1/27/2014 8:31 AM

Re: Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy

Admiral Locklear is referring to the conventional active duty Army.  PACOM exercises have been predominantly executed by SOF and guard units.  This new concept of Pacific Pathways utilizes active duty brigades with attached rotary wing assets and black bottom cargo boats.  This is very new for Army security cooperation/crisis response in the Pacific.  The Army is in a tough spot with the new QDR, a shrinking budget, and no real mission outside of the Korean Peninsula.  I would rather plus up OSCs and SOF versus creating a USMC copy with less capabilities and more potential for host-nation issues due to troops camping out in Asia for four month deployments.
Captain Timothy Fretwell, USMC at 1/27/2014 9:21 AM

Re: Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy

This article is misleading. The report, which was published under my supervision at the RAND Arroyo Center, is about Southeast Asia, not all of Asia. Clearly there are significant potential trouble spots when you open the aperture to consider all of Asia.
Terrence Kelly at 1/27/2014 1:52 PM

Re: Future of the Army in Asia: Less War, More Diplomacy (UPDATED)

The points about the locaiton focus of the RAND study taken, the Admiral's comment looks ot be out of context.  Given its locaiton in the article, he might have been responding to what the Army Chief of Staff was noting and the elevation of the senior US Army Pacific general.  At the same time, the Army has conducted numerous exercises, conventional and SOF, across the pacific as well as having had nearly a full division in Korea since pretty much the end of the Korean War.  Further, in WW II, it was the Army and Marines that did the "island hopping" campaigns not just the Marines and Navy.
Pat Filbert at 1/27/2014 4:31 PM

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