After the war in Vietnam, the US Army in the Pacific became something of a poor country cousin, getting less attention than US armies located elsewhere because of the Soviet threat to Western Europe, deployments to Desert Storm and the Gulf War, and the lengthy campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, that is changing. The army with its headquarters at Fort Shafter in Honolulu, known formally as US Army Pacific, or USARPAC, is on its way to becoming the US’ largest army outside the continental US and has been promised priority in funding despite cutbacks to military spending.
A critical mission of USARPAC is deterrence. Its commander, Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski, says this army “is about more than winning conflicts; we strive to prevent them. The greatest victory is that of peace over war, of stability over conflict.”
The new look includes:
‧ Construction of a command center at Fort Shafter, which has just begun; it will replace 12 old buildings and be equipped with the latest in high-tech intelligence and communications gear. The first phase will cost US$46.8 million and will take two years.
‧ Training exercises with other armies throughout the Asia-Pacific region will be stressed, drawing on the experience of the 170,000 soldiers from USARPAC who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan at one time or another.
‧ Greater emphasis will be given to preparing for natural disaster response like last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak in Japan. As Wiercinski has said: “Nowhere in the Pacific is any place safe from natural disaster.”
‧ The Eighth army in South Korea will become the Eighth Field army in USARPAC and tasked for expeditions elsewhere as well as defending South Korea. Two new posts, costing Seoul nearly US$13 billion, are being built to consolidate US army units there.
‧ Command of USARPAC will eventually be assigned to a four-star general in place of the current three-star lieutenant general, possibly by moving the four-star in South Korea to Fort Shafter. US Senator Daniel Inouye has publicly urged this change.
Wiercinski has laid out his vision for USARPAC’s immediate future in a White Paper addressed to “Fellow Leaders.” It was sent to generals, brigade and battalion commanders in USARPAC, senior officials in several US government agencies and Asian military leaders to let them know which direction the US Army is headed.
The White Paper underscored “America’s renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region” although most of the army’s plans were worked out before US President Obama last year proclaimed a “pivot” or “rebalancing” of forces in this region.
“America’s strategic focus on the region includes a strong emphasis on cooperative multilateral engagement,” the White Paper says.
That is intended not only to improve military readiness, but to “limit harmful military influences and negate potential threats to regional peace.”
This puts a particular responsibility on the shoulders of USARPAC as the army is the dominant, and often the most influential, service in the majority of Asian nations, including most of the US’ allies and partners.
For much of the postwar period, the US has relied on bases and the deployment of troops to foreign countries as evidence of a US security commitment. That is gradually being replaced by exercises in which US troops go to another country to train for days or weeks, then go home, leaving behind only a small footprint.
The White Paper gave particular weight to US efforts to building trust in the US among other nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
“No nation or government can ‘surge’ trust and influence among its allies and partners,” it says, asserting “that is a deliberate process that occurs over years.”
On disaster relief, the White Paper noted that in many nations, the military has often been the only entity able to respond rapidly to a disaster.
“A failed relief effort by an unprepared military,” it says, “can force defense establishments into disarray and push a weak government to the brink of collapse.”
Preparing and readying forces for disaster relief “is one aspect of defense cooperation that is both non-controversial and in need of greater international cooperation,” the White Paper says.
With all the emphasis on building cooperative relations with other armies and on missions, such as disaster relief, fighting wars is still the US Army’s job No. 1.
The White Paper concludes: “Winning the nation’s wars has and always will be the US army’s most essential mission.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.