Communications Networks a Top Priority for U.S. Military in Asia-Pacific
Thousands of U.S. soldiers train alongside troops from Southeast Asian countries as part of a larger strategy to strengthen alliances in the region and secure U.S. access to key seaports, airfields and bases during a crisis.
But despite a huge investment by the United States — in troops, military trainers, logistics support and weaponry — throughout the Pacific theater, there are persistent shortfalls in communications technology and data networks that keep countries from sharing information and collaborating more closely.
"One of the challenges we have is, when you go forward of the international dateline, how you work communications," said Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, commander of the Army’s I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
I Corps has been assigned to provide forces to U.S. Pacific Command. With 60,000 soldiers, the corps is responsible for supplying troops and equipment to the Army’s Pacific Forces, led by a four-star commander, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks.
Lanza is emphatic about the importance of keeping the Army engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. "How do we achieve access? Through our relationships with military forces there," he said Jan. 23 during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.
"On any given day, I have forces all over the Pacific," he said. It would help the Army's efforts to have interoperable communications and information systems to create a "common operating picture" that could be shared with different countries, Lanza added. "One of the big issues we're working on is the net architecture. ... Our ability to communicate forward of the international dateline is extremely important."
U.S. commanders in the region also could use better communications to reach back to the United States, Lanza noted. "As our forces become smaller, our ability to reach back to capabilities inside the United States is extremely important."
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.
A new initiative known as "Pacific Pathways" organizes simulated combat deployments with partner nations. Lanza said these exercises help allies and also keep U.S. soldiers combat-ready at a time when training budgets are being squeezed.
One of the difficulties for the Army as it pursues more bilateral and multinational ties is to be able to communicate with countries that use different types of equipment and that might not be allowed to log into U.S. networks for security reasons. “The concern is how do you sustain interoperability and the ability to operate collectively together,” said Lanza.
The reason the United States wants a military presence there is to build “trust and relationships,” he said. “You have to be forward.” The militaries of countries like the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia are undergoing sweeping reforms, and “we have to be part of that dialogue.”
Many of the armies in Asia-Pacific see their primary role as “first responders,” said Lanza. During a recent conference in Bangladesh where 25 militaries participated, a key topic was how to better communicate with civilian agencies during emergencies. They are seeking “innovations about how they link to the interagency,” he said. “They are working through the same process we are.”
How to protect networks from cyber attacks also is becoming a concern as the U.S. military seeks to improve communications and interoperability. “That will be a big discussion in the future,” said Lanza. In a multinational architecture, cyber security becomes a collective issue, he said. “We are integrating cyber training in I Corps.”
Lanza’s concerns are not new. U.S. military communications shortfalls in the Pacific have been known for years and have gained more attention since the 2012 rollout of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy.
Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, who commanded Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, said the Pacific theater is especially tough because of its size. During a meeting with reporters in
2013, Carlisle said Pacific commanders would like to have a system comparable to what the U.S. military built in Afghanistan, which allowed for communications via satellite and airborne nodes.
In U.S. Pacific Command, there were talks about building a comparable layered communications backbone. That would help networks cope with the large distances and the lack of satellite coverage in some areas, and would give the system resilience in case satellites were disrupted.