Commentary / World

Building the foundations of Pacific stability

by Eric K. Fanning

This month, I completed a two-week, six-stop tour of the Pacific, beginning with a visit to the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. It was a fitting way to start the trip, a reminder that the U.S. Army is critical to forming the foundation for security in the Pacific.

The 25th Infantry Division, which in its early years earned the nickname “Tropic Lightning,” marks its 75th anniversary this autumn. The men and women stationed there — and, indeed, all U.S. soldiers in the Asia-Pacific region — have been working to secure regional stability for much of the last century. Since President Barack Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia, they have been doing even more.

Today, the U.S. Army has a lot on its plate outside the region. It is at the forefront of the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State militant group, as well as efforts to support the people of Afghanistan.

Yet we also continue to play a critical role in maintaining peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Though security in the Pacific is often associated with the efforts of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, the army is assuming an increasingly important role in strengthening regional partnerships.

At a time when six of the world’s 10 largest armies are located in the Pacific theater of operations, and 22 of the region’s 27 countries have army officers as their defense chiefs, the need to invest in the U.S. Army’s mission in the region is clear.

A key component of that mission is the Pacific Pathways program, which involves “joining multinational partners to conduct a series of military exercises intended to increase army readiness through additional training and strengthened partner-force relationships.” Engaging with U.S. soldiers participating in Pacific Pathways exercises in Hawaii, Malaysia and Alaska, I saw firsthand how these efforts advance regional security.

In Hawaii, American and Singaporean soldiers participated in their 36th year of joint exercises. From the newest privates to the most experienced generals, U.S. soldiers have developed strong ties with their counterparts and deep pride in their shared security mission. In this sense, these soldiers are also serving as important ambassadors in the region.

The U.S. Army’s partnership with Malaysia is more recent. But during an annual joint exercise, I witnessed our forces improving familiarity and interoperability, and noted growing satisfaction with the strengthening of ties. In the event of, say, a natural disaster in the Pacific, the bonds that the U.S. and Malaysia have fostered could help save thousands of lives during a combined crisis response.

We know that we must continue working to sustain and strengthen our engagement in the Pacific, even as U.S. soldiers continue to carry out diverse and demanding missions in other parts of the world. One way we can help to meet this need is through the use of rotational brigades.

At Camp Casey in South Korea, I had lunch with soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division, who had trained for nine months at Fort Hood, Texas, before embarking on a nine-month rotation to the peninsula. Over the course of the deployment, the readiness of these forces actually increases, because of the quality and rigor of the training they undertake with partners from South Korea’s army.

Another way the U.S. Army is maintaining flexibility, resiliency and depth in the Asia-Pacific region is by placing pre-positioned stocks — strategic stockpiles of critical combat equipment — in allies’ territory. In Japan, for example, the U.S. Army stores more than 100 watercraft that can be used to deliver supplies quickly in the event of a natural disaster or other contingency.

Beyond storing the equipment, we train with our partners to use it, and we develop our logistical capabilities to distribute it effectively. In effect, the U.S. Army provides rapid response capabilities to the U.S. Joint Force (the army, navy, air force and marines acting in tandem) and our allies and partners.

The U.S. Army is also pursuing tactical innovation in the Pacific. While our budget for modernization is below that of the other U.S. armed services, we must continue to develop capabilities rapidly and equip our people with the latest technology. That is why, for example, soldiers have been learning to fight in formation with robots in Hawaii, and we have engaged in bilateral training with unmanned aerial systems in Malaysia.

A final element of our involvement in the Asia-Pacific region is the effort to improve our capabilities in difficult tactical environments. We engage in exercises in Alaska that develop our capabilities in extreme climates — capabilities that will help us to ensure that the Arctic does not become a contested region. And, through our training in Hawaii and Malaysia, we have strengthened our capacity to fight in a jungle environment.

The U.S. Army has a broad array of missions and responsibilities. From Hawaii through Guam, to Northeast Asia and the Alaskan frontier, it is pursuing a crucial one: providing a foundation for security in a dynamic region — and for America’s future there.

Eric K. Fanning is U.S. secretary of the army. © Project Syndicate, 2016

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