When it comes to the Pacific rebalance, each branch of the U.S. military faces challenges, but the Army might have the steepest climb ahead.
“Given [its] traditional role—the sense that the Pacific was an Air Force and naval theater—the Army has I think the most difficult change agenda,” said Dr. John R. Deni, a research professor at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.
The traditional role cited by Deni—who has written extensively about the U.S. Army in the Pacific—is one that was centered on deterrence and assurance. On the ground, that means deterring North Korea from crossing the border into South Korea and discouraging China from what Deni calls “adventurous aggression” against its smaller neighbors.
It also means assuring our regional allies and partners that the U.S. is committed to providing stability. These roles remain for the Army as the rebalance takes shape, but they are evolving.
“The Army has thought of its role as assurance and deterrence,” said Deni. “That’s changing now and the reason why it’s changing is because we’ve come to realize in the U.S. military that shaping the international security environment and trying to prevent conflict is arguably as important as being able to win the nation’s wars.”
In an effort to shape the environment, the Army has started to emphasize the importance of security cooperation, security assistance, military-to-military engagements, exercises and training events with its partners. And most of the military partners in the region—21 of 27—are led by Army officers.
“As a result, the U.S. has to be able to speak the same organizational language,” said Deni. “This does not mean that the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marines can’t perform security cooperation there. What it does mean though, is that there is going to be a level of familiarity and comfort [between] two Army officers.”
For decades, perhaps since the end of World War II, conventional wisdom in the U.S. says the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is the domain of the Navy, Air Force and Marines. The leader of Pacific Command (PACOM) has almost exclusively been a Navy admiral, and for good reason. There’s a lot of open water in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
But there’s a place for the land-based Army, too, and its presence in the region is increasing due to the rebalance. Major General Todd B. McCaffrey, U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) chief of staff, echoed that sentiment in a recent interview.
“At its core, what rebalancing is for us is … about increased commitment and increased engagement across the region,” he said.
For the Army, there is a long list of evidence that shows that the rebalance is advancing. USARPAC was elevated from a three- to a four-star post when Army General Vincent K. Brooks took command in July 2013. What seems like window dressing to the untrained eye looks a lot different to foreign military leaders.
“What that does in the region is that it provides you more access,” said McCaffrey, who added that they’ve seen significant grade increases in other positions—including his own—inside USARPAC’s Fort Shafter, Hawaii, headquarters. Many U.S. partners and allies in the region perceive the move as an Army-wide commitment to the strategy.
U.S. Army Pacific’s mission command facility is also getting an upgrade. A new facility under construction will replace 12 wooden buildings that were built in 1944 and originally intended to be temporary.
In addition to a new building housing its headquarters, USARPAC has seen a sharp increase in the number of personnel assigned to the region. With the inclusion of soldiers stationed in Washington state and Alaska, about 106,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian personnel are aligned with USARPAC, up from about 60,000 a few years ago. The growth comes as the Army is reducing its numbers across the board.
“What we’re able to do now, as we’ve been able to draw down requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq, is we’ve been able to shift some of that capability to focus on this region, which has always been important to the United States,” McCaffrey said.
Shifting Army capability to the Pacific also means building and expanding skills once soldiers get there.
On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the 25th Infantry Division opened a Jungle Operations Training Course in early 2014, the Army’s first such facility since ceasing operations at Fort Sherman in Panama in 1999. USARPAC said that about 2,200 soldiers have the passed the first phase of a three-part course that is designed to prepare and train soldiers to operate in a jungle environment.
“The jungle school here is challenging. I think soldiers get a lot out of it and they really enjoy the challenge,” said McCaffrey. “As they go into the region—from Hawaii into Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia—they’re … able to put those skills to use in those areas.”
McCaffrey said that, while there’s a lot of focus on jungle training, soldiers are also training in the arctic conditions of Alaska. The Indo-Asia-Pacific, a massive region that covers more than half of Earth’s surface area, is home to varying climates. The Army is doing what it can to keep its soldiers prepared for anything they might face.
“This is one of the few areas of the world where we have two climatic extremes and we’re able to train for both of them because forces are available out here,” he said.
It’s not just varying climates that could pose challenges for an Army that spent most of the past two decades fighting in the deserts and streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. What Brooks calls the “tyranny of distance” in the region makes it harder to move from place to place.
“The distances involved … make it easier for equipment-intensive services—the Navy and the Air Force, largely—to be more efficient at operating in that part of the world,” said Deni.
So the Army, with cooperation from the Navy, has worked to narrow the distance gap by training some of its helicopter pilots and flight crews up on the difficult task of landing aircraft aboard ships. The Hawaii-based 25th ID’s Combat Aviation Brigade frequently flies over open water, but landing Army helos on moving Navy vessels was a new challenge.
“We know that that’s a need and it’s to supplement the capabilities that the Navy and the maritime force already have in certain areas,” McCaffrey said. “It’s certainly not designed to be competitive to others. It’s really designed to assist and provide Army capabilities … to the joint force commander.”
And one of the many things the commander needs is an Army capable of quickly responding to natural disasters in the region, which is home to some of the most volatile and destructive weather on the planet. McCaffrey said the U.S. military is much more likely to be called in for disaster relief than for anything else, adding that USARPAC soldiers routinely prepare for those scenarios.
He also said the Army has some logistics and watercraft capabilities in the region that are unique to the service. Deni expanded on the topic. “If you’re going to be involved in disaster relief, logistics capabilities are absolutely critical [as is] the ability to deliver those goods not simply to the port, but inland,” he said. “When it comes to humanitarian assistance and relief, it’s going to be difficult to do some of this stuff unless you have the Army involved.”
Readiness and interoperability are key to any mission the Army might be tasked with in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, so the service is innovating its approach to exercises in the region to improve in each area.
Pacific Pathways, one of the most visible Army initiatives in the region, puts a new twist on the way the service develops relationships and capabilities. McCaffrey explained the program puts a single unit through a series of three existing exercises with military partners and allies. “They are not new exercises, but we’re doing them in a new way,” he said.
The first pathway kicked off in June 2014 and troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were deployed for more than four months. More than 800 soldiers from 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, rotated from its home in Washington and traveled to Hawaii, Malaysia and Indonesia before ending the tour in Japan.
McCaffrey said the Army is getting “readiness value” out of the concept because the soldiers on the pathway conduct expeditionary operations at each of the exercises.
“By stringing the exercises together that way—by loading up and loading out each time—we’re having to work expeditionary operations. It’s what we’d have to do in the Pacific if we had to operate in a contingency environment.”
Additionally, by engaging with foreign military partners for extend periods, USARPAC is improving interoperability and learning from in its friends in the region. Army Major General Charles Flynn, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, told the Military Times the Army is gaining understanding and knowledge it can’t get anywhere else.
“When you have real people, with real materiel, real training, and they’re out doing real operations, you just can’t replicate that,” he said.
McCaffrey also said the nations on the pathway appreciate being included in the program. “We’re finding that countries view that being on the pathway is an increased commitment to them … and it’s been generally well-received by our partner nations and certainly well-received by the soldiers that were on it.”
Following up on the success of the first pathway, the Army is planning three separate versions of the program for 2015. The first pathway, which traveled to Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, finished up in April. The second is slated to begin in Australia in July and the third is not yet finalized.
It’s not just soldiers who have to prepare for a deployment to various locations across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The Army uses the opportunity to tune up its family readiness groups that help families cope with all the difficulties deployments can bring.
“It’s also a rehearsal for the way we need to deploy, McCaffrey said. “So we exercise family readiness groups [and we apply] all the lessons we’ve learned over years of war.”
One of those many lessons is exhibited in the classrooms of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Deni works. He’s seen an increase in the number of international fellows in recent years, and it’s not by mistake. General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, requested the school double the number of foreign military officers it educates and the leadership obliged, boosting the rolls from 40 fellows to 80 by Deni’s estimation. Not all the additions come from the Pacific, but the initiative illustrates a shift in the Army.
“It’s reflective of this realization that it’s a lot easier—and cheaper—to prevent a conflict and shape the international security environment in a way that’s conducive to our American interests than it is to have to fight a fight.”
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.