Army's Pacific Strategy Seen As Model for Peacetime Training
When budget cuts hit the U.S. military last year, the Army canceled training rotations and only two of its 37 combat brigades were considered ready to go into combat. Things have improved since then, with 12 brigades now in high state of readiness.
The Pentagon continues to face fiscal turbulence, though, and chances are that the Army will continue to struggle to fund full-blown war rehearsals at its major training centers.
Army commanders who oversee the Asia-Pacific region are testing an unconventional way to train soldiers under a program called Pacific Pathways. Selected I Corps units, instead of going through traditional training rotations, are sent off to Asia-Pacific for combat rehearsals with Asian allies.
Officials say this approach gives the military a better return on its overseas investments and also creates opportunities for U.S. soldiers to sharpen their skills in missions that will be increasingly in demand, such as disaster relief, medical support and joint operations with civilian agencies.
The Army already is committed to helping allies train and equip their militaries — an activity called “building partner capacity” — under international treaty obligations. The United States has security agreements with South Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. It also has forged regional partnerships with Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and India.
Pacific Pathways turns what would be routine “theater cooperation” events into simulated combat deployments. These exercises keep U.S. soldiers combat-ready at a time when training dollars are increasingly scarce, says Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, commander of the Army’s I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
I Corps has been assigned to support U.S. Pacific Command. With 60,000 soldiers, the corps is responsible for providing troops and equipment to the Army’s Pacific Forces, led by a four-star commander, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks.
“Previously we did exercises in the Pacific that were not linked to a strategy,” Lanza tells National Defense this week at the Association of the U.S. Army annual convention in Washington, D.C.
“General Brooks decided to link the exercises into an operation,” he says. The first Pacific Pathways deployment took soldiers from Lewis—McChord to Honolulu, then to Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan.
More than 1,000 soldiers, deployed for a four-month operation. Brooks provided a contractor-operated ship to transport the units.
“That's the beauty of having a four-star headquarters in the Pacific,” Lanza says. “General Brooks sets the strategy. That's what's important about being linked to what he does.” I Corps supplies soldiers and equipment so Pacific Command can meet its international obligations, build relationships and trust with allies. In turn, the Army gains readiness, he says. “We have done a tremendous amount of training in these countries. Brigades come back more ready.”
Each participant country gets to decide what type of training will be done with the U.S. Army. Some choose jungle warfare, others counterinsurgency, collective defense or disaster relief. For U.S. soldiers, it’s a chance to learn skills in a matter of weeks. The Army in the Pacific region is especially interested in honing troops’ capabilities for humanitarian relief, says Lanza. “About 80 percent of what we are going to have to do is geared to disaster relief and humanitarian operations.”
These exercises also fit into the Army’s vision for its future, Lanza says. The Army's newly released "operating concept" calls for its forces to be organized and trained to deploy to multiple contingencies simultaneously and respond to unexpected crises such as the Ebola outbreak.
“Sometimes we get fixated on doing things with brigade combat teams,” Lanza says. “But as you talk to ambassadors, there are things we can do with our multifunctional units — engineering, medical, sustainment units — and things we can do with our Guard and Reserves,” he says. “It's really about being innovative with the resources we have.”
Soldiers need training, but not everyone will get a National Training Center war rehearsal, he says. A brigade that goes through an NTC rotation comes out with the highest readiness rating and goes into a pool that's ready to go to war, if needed. If the Army can't afford to send everyone to major training centers, Lanza says, “How do you keep multifunctional teams and combat forces trained and ready? In the future you'll need more creative ways to do it.”
With a $120 billion budget, it might be hard to comprehend how the Army runs out of training money. The reason is the way the military budgets money in different buckets. Training is funded in the “operations and maintenance” account. Within the Army's budget, 46 percent goes to personnel costs and 35 percent is for O&M. When across-the-board cuts came down in 2013, personnel accounts were exempt by law, so the reductions disproportionately affected equipment and O&M expenditures. Congress gave the Defense Department a reprieve from sequester in 2014 and 2015.
Officials fear that if across-the-board cuts are again enforced in 2016, training budgets will be hit hard.
The Army is dismissing about 20,000 soldiers a year to bring its overall costs down, but that comes with upfront costs. I Corps, for instance, had to pay $1.4 billion from 2011 to 2013 in unemployment benefits to soldiers who were let go. “If they don't have a job when they get out of the Army, the unemployment benefits for 12 months come out of our O&M dollars,” says Lanza.
A major concern is to ensure Pacific Pathways continues so more soldiers can go through the program, he says. The next one is scheduled to begin in March. Brooks has said he wants to conduct three events per year, each involving two to three countries.
The first Pacific Pathways deployment this summer was Garuda Shield, in Indonesia. It involved nearly 550 soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division headquarters, the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat
Team, the 9th Mission Support Command, 555th Engineer Brigade and Washington Army National Guard. They brought nine Stryker armored personnel carriers — two command vehicles, four infantry carrier vehicles, two mortar carrier vehicles, and one medical evacuation vehicle. They also employed eight aircraft: four AH-64 Apache helicopters, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.
The second event was Keris Strike, in Malaysia, with 505 U.S. troops, 11 Stryker vehicles, two UH-60 Black Hawks and one HH-60 Pave Hawk). Participants were from the 2nd Stryker BCT, the 9th Mission Support Command and the Hawaii Army National Guard.
For the final deployment, Orient Shield, in Japan, 800 U.S. soldiers are participating. Their equipment included 20 Stryker vehicles, four AH-64 Apaches, four UH-60 Black Hawks, and three HH-60 Pave Hawks. Participants included soldiers from the 2nd Stryker Brigade and the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. Other supporting units include the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 10th
Regional Support Group; Utah Army National Guard; Texas Army National Guard; U.S. Army Garrison, Japan, and 18th Medical Command.