How different is the Pentagon's attitude toward Asia and the Pacific today than in the last decade?
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commanding general of the Army's I Corps, which is tasked to Pacific Command (PACOM), recalled the difficulty in getting approval to send a single hospital ship to visit Pacific nations when he was executive assistant to then PACOM commander Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, in 2006.
"It took us six months to convince the secretary of defense to allow the USS Mercy to do a mission in Southeast Asia because of the cost. They were like, ‘What is the relevance of that?'" Brown said, during a Washington visit last week. "Well, now no one questions that."
Indeed, finding its role in the Obama administration's "rebalancing," the Army today is figuring out how to approach and manage the threats, relationships, and military capabilities across the vast Asia-Pacific region like never before. That's why Brown and other commanders gathered in a small Residence Inn conference room in Arlington, Virginia, at the invitation of the think tank CNA, to discuss how to position more equipment and employ more people in Asia, while making friends with allies and breaking through to, well, other countries.
Army officials by now like to remind audiences that although the Pacific Ocean invokes images of the navy, most of the people in Asia live on land. All of them, in fact. (insert laughter) And most countries rely on large armies, which means the U.S. is going to rely on army-to-army relationships to ensure continued access to bases and, notably, ports.
"Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world, 21 of the 27 defense chiefs in the Pacific, are army," said Brown. "So, obviously, when we talk about working with Pacific nations, the armies hold a lot of influence, power, and there's a huge role."
Pacific counterparts in other nations have taken notice already that the U.S. Army Pacific commander is being elevated from a three-star to a four-star position.
"That really resonated extremely well on my last trip across the Pacific. It was pretty clear to them, ‘Oh, I see, Europe going from a four-star and U.S. Army Pacific becoming a four-star.'" Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks is expected to take command with his fourth star in July.
And more firepower is coming, as well. Three additional Stryker Brigades will be tasked to PACOM, Brown said. One is already there, and two of the three that have deployed to Afghanistan will not return there again.
"They will not go back to Afghanistan. They're going to the Pacific. In fact, one of them is already there, the one that got back three months ago," Brown said.
At the same time, Army planners are discussing which threats the service should be best prepared to face. In North Korea, Brown said, the Army's "most likely traditional threat, if you will, is humanitarian assistance and disaster response. That's the most likely thing we will respond to." But his list also includes air and missile defense, civilian evacuations, cyberattacks, IEDs, and terrorism.
Additionally, the Army is working closely with the Marines, given the likelihood that in any crisis response, soldiers will be moving from ship to shore in Asia, as well.
"[Lt. Gen. John] Toolan [commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force] and I are exchanging officers, working together, as we're both on the West Coast there," Brown said. "We've having a seminar here coming up on the Pacific, and we're exploring, again, how we each fit in those roles and learning from each other, so that we truly are capable of doing these unique missions, not set in a box of kind of stuck in the past of: ‘Here's what we would do; here's what you would do.' The world is not like that. It's gotten much more complex. We're going to have to work together a lot more."
One partner not yet ready to work together: China. Brown said he recently met with a People's Liberation Army officer who was unconvinced the American pivot to Asia was nothing more than a containment strategy against China.
That perception may be Brown's biggest challenge of all.
"Cooperation and collaboration. It's the only way to solve things. Everybody wants prosperity and growth. Who in their right mind would want to go the other direction and go back into a cold war of containment? It doesn't make any sense."
U.S. Army photo