By Dan Parsons
Army leaders are making the hard sell for a role in a future national security strategy that is focused on the Pacific, where expanses of sky and water dominate.
Top-level military and civilian officials were out to prove at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., that the nation’s land force is a necessary element in policing the region.
Their argument? Though the Army’s Pacific Command has been “a little busy the last 11 years” it never actually left the region from which most of the streamers on its battle flag derive.
“We never left. For us we are only talking about a refocus,” Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, said at the conference. “It’s not about what we’re getting. It’s about what we’re getting back.”
For the past 11 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 170,000 soldiers from U.S. Army Pacific Command have been deployed to those two theaters.
“The PACOM commander did not have his army,” Wiercinski said. “This is an Army theater.”
Now they’re coming back to a region that witnesses well more than half of global commerce by sea yet is marked by land armies more than any other military profession. I Corps is moving back to its station at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. That 14-division corps represents about 40,000 active and reserve troops. The 25th Infantry Division also will be moving back to its base on Oahu, Hawaii.
“We’re thrilled to be back,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of I Corps and Lewis-McChord.
Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are located in the Pacific. Of 28 nations in the region that have militaries, 27 of them are army dominant. Sixty percent of the world population looks out onto the Pacific Ocean and both the number of inhabitants and economies of these nations are expanding at a rapid pace, he said.
For that reason, the U.S. military’s rebalance to the Pacific “is not a military event,” Wiercinski said. “It is a whole of government approach.”
James Moriarty, former ambassador to China, said U.S. strategic thinking has not strayed from looking west over the Pacific since Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor in 1852 or even earlier.
“Every since the U.S. reached the Pacific, minds have been looking out over that ocean,” he said. “There is a recognition, long overdue in my view, that this is where the action is in the world and the United States, whether it’s diplomats or soldiers needs to be present.”
But distance can be a devil for logistics, and the Army is having to crunch numbers on how it will transport and support forces over an area that spans 16 time zones and 9,000 miles “Ballywood to Hollywood.”
“We are beginning to realize that we are talking about the biggest logistical challenge facing the U.S. over the next decade,” Moriarty said.
Wiercinski called the Pacific a “logistical theater” that requires “strategically prepositioned equipment stocks.”
That would allow the Army to train with its regional partner nations without being stationed in foreign countries. There is little appetite for permanently stationing U.S. troops in foreign countries these days, but a hunger for military-to-military cooperation, Wiercinski said.
That cooperation is at the core of the U.S. Pacific strategy. Next year, Australian Army Maj. Gen Rick Burr will become the deputy commander for U.S. Army Pacific Command. The inclusion of a foreign general officer is a first for U.S. combatant command structure.
Burr’s colleague, Brig. Gen, Barry McManus, said “if that sounds unusual, it’s only because we weren’t smart enough to figure it out sooner.”
Australia, as Marines in Darwin have already demonstrated, is a convenient logistical base for Pacific operations, McManus said. “We’re closer,” he said. Still, “this is a challenging work environment.”
There are 25,000 islands within the Australian military’s primary operational environment, McManus said. It also is proximal to several seagoing narrows through which more than 60 percent of global commerce flows. While Navy and Air Force leaders are promoting their crucial role in keeping these sea-lanes open, McManus offered a theory that is counter to the air-sea battle strategy being batted about.
“Each of those chokepoints is dominated by land terrain,” he said. “You cannot open these chokepoints and open the global commons without control of the land.”
But conflict in Asia is “easily avoidable,” Moriarty said. “The U.S. and China have no interest in seeing a conflict.”
While many analysts have interpreted the U.S. pivot to the Pacific as a countermeasure to a rising China, Thomas Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Political Military Affairs at the State Department, said the “rebalance is not aimed at China.”
“We’re seeking a positive, comprehensive, cooperative relationship with China,” he said. “Aircraft carriers are cooler than diplomatic dialogues, but we don’t support an us-versus-them mentality.”
One of the Army’s oldest footholds in Asia is in South Korea, home of 8th Army, which is commanded by Lt. Gen. John D. Johnston. In the 62 years since the Korean War ended, that nation has been a model for growth and U.S. cooperation with the Asian nation, he said. Since the war left much of South Korea in rubble, the South has built itself into the 13th-largest economy in the world. South Korean soldiers have stood side by side with U.S. troops in nearly every theater of operations, from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to Iraq and Afghanistan today, he said.
“Training in Korea is also an opportunity to learn new skills about how to partner with a first-world country,” Johnson said.
Photo Credit: Defense Department