Army poised to take more visible role in Pacific
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 31, 2012
ITAMI, Japan — Even if everything the Pentagon says about its plan to reduce the Army’s strength by 80,000 troops is spot-on, and the service meets every global challenge unfailingly, this much remains clear: no commander wants to be told that they will have fewer troops to accomplish the same mission.
Planning for drawdowns, base closures and cutbacks isn’t exactly the stuff that generals’ dreams are made of either.
With those impending cuts in mind, it’s not a bad time to be in Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski’s shoes. The U.S. Army Pacific commander says he’s unlikely to see a reduction of the 62,000 soldiers in the Pacific area of operations spanning from Alaska to South Korea.
That reprieve from force cuts comes with increased attention from Washington, which will look to its Pacific troops to manage potential emergencies arising from North Korea’s regime change, as well as to help allay its Asian allies’ concerns about China’s growing military might.
During a speech in Canberra, Australia, in November, President Barack Obama said, “We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace. We will keep our commitments, including our treaty obligations to allies like Australia.
“And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century,” he said. “Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
Wiercinski brushes aside any notion that the attention puts his command “under the microscope,” interpreting it instead as an opportunity for more guidance, and the resources that come with it.
“ ‘Microscope’ is not the right word,” said Wiercinski, who spoke with Stars and Stripes this week during the annual Yama Sakura bilateral military exercise, near Osaka. “I would say a focus, and I appreciate it, a lot.”
With the exception of the U.S. 8th Army’s role in South Korea, the Army has arguably held the lowest profile of all the services in the Asia-Pacific theater since the end of the Vietnam War. However, it is now sending increasing signals that it wants to play a bigger part in the region.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno chose U.S. Army Pacific headquarters in Hawaii for his first trip away from the continental United States, then made Japan and South Korea his first overseas trips in late January. Odierno later told Reuters that the Army has an important diplomatic role in the Pacific, where 22 out of 28 chiefs of defense are army officers. Seven of the world’s 10 largest land armies are in the Pacific, he also noted.
“We will strengthen our presence in the region,” he said during a Jan. 25 breakfast hosted by the Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare in Arlington, Va. “We have five of our seven mutual defense treaties in this region and we continue to conduct long-standing exercises with Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.
“The Army will actively seek new opportunities for expanding and existing training and engaging with new partners.”
The service is already well-practiced in its diplomatic role with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces, which is by far the country’s largest defense component. It maintains liaison officers at each of Japan’s five regional army centers, which leaders say proved crucial when it came to communicating in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake and tsunami disasters.
“We were able to better support the Japanese Self-Defense Forces because we knew the key leaders, the soldiers (and) their officers,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Harrison Sr., commander of U.S. Army Japan and I Corps Forward, on Tuesday. “So when the stress was high … we had an appreciation for how we could put our systems together.”
Meanwhile, the Army has been restructuring to extend its regional reach during emergencies.
Last year, the Army certified its Pacific contingency command post, a Hawaii-based cell designed to deploy within 48 hours and control thousands of troops. It also recently stood up I Corps Forward, a similarly deployable group based at Camp Zama, near Tokyo.
In October, it further integrated 8th Army into the Pacific command structure. Although U.S. Forces Korea retains operational control in combat, 8th Army now goes to Wiercinski’s command for personnel and other administrative functions.
About 150 personnel from 8th Army’s command are currently in Japan, playing the role of a higher headquarters in the Yama Sakura exercise’s computer-based simulation. They are among roughly 1,300 U.S. servicemembers in the Pacific and 4,500 Japanese personnel playing out a scenario requiring the defense of Japan against an unspecified foreign invader.
Asia analysts say the Army and the rest of the U.S. military’s assurances have relieved much of the region, which views the United States as a counterbalance to China’s growing influence. However, despite assurances from Obama and other senior U.S. officials, some anxiety remains.
“There were a lot of fears that the U.S. commitment to Asia was in doubt, because of its budget and its willingness,” said Ryo Sahashi, associate professor of international politics at Kanagawa University in Japan. “The high-level voices that spoke about the recommitment to Asia were very important.
“But what we’ll start to discuss now is whether it is really sustainable, because we can’t know what will happen in the Middle East or another area. With a shrinking defense budget, we still need to see if the U.S. will go back to showing more commitment to another region.”
U.S. Army soldiers and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel assemble for the opening ceremony of the annual Yama Sakura exercise at the Japanese Middle Army headquarters in Itami, Japan, on Jan. 31, 2012. Army leaders see the service’s Pacific role growing in importance, and have spared it from the force reductions that will affect Europe and the United States during the next five years.
Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes