The Defense Department's highest ranking officer in the Pacific visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Friday to get battle-hardened Iraq and Afghanistan veterans thinking about new challenges as diverse as climate change and rising Asian powers.
Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear's trip sent another signal in the Pentagon's shift in focus from wars in the Middle East to emerging threats and neglected alliances in other parts of the world.
"We can't stay Middle East-focused forever," Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told Lewis-McChord's I Corps.
The base supplied about 10,000 soldiers a year to Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the past decade. About 5,000 Lewis-McChord soldiers are in Afghanistan today, but most should be home by August.
With the wars ending, the Pentagon assigned new responsibilities to the I Corps under Locklear's command. That means local soldiers will be expected to respond to humanitarian crises in South Asia, nurture relationships with allied armies and work to prevent large-scale conflicts from unfolding.
Locklear told I Corps soldiers that a complex Pacific environment calls on them to prepare for:
--A warming planet causing the rise of sea levels and destabilizing Pacific countries.
--Violent extremist groups, such as ones that have carried out terrorist attacks in India and the Philippines.
--International narcotics smugglers and human traffickers.
--A nuclear-armed North Korea.
His forward-looking speech urged soldiers to study up on their new territory and to look at how the region might change in the near future. For instance, climate change could make some coastal areas uninhabitable and exacerbate natural disasters.
"The world is getting warmer," he said. "When you potentially have millions of people impacted by weather and climate change, that's going to have a potentially significant impact on security."
So far, the Pentagon is protecting Lewis-McChord's new task in the Pacific from budget cuts. Lewis-McChord soldiers over the next 12 months are on course to carry out exercises in Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.
The fact that the exercises still are scheduled to take place despite the threat of looming budget cuts shows the value the Defense Department places on Lewis-McChord's work in the Pacific, I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown said earlier this week in a briefing that led up to Locklear's visit.
"You might think this is routine and normal," he said. "In this environment, nothing is routine and normal."
Those exercises in Pacific nations often fell to Fort Lewis soldiers in the past. Recently, though, Iraq and Afghanistan took precedence and units from other stations filled in at the Pacific drills.
Locklear's visit came at the end of a week of classes that I Corps soldiers took to prepare for their exercise in Australia this summer. The drill will call on them to overcome an enemy and then stabilize a local population.
The idea is to incorporate a traditional battle plan with lessons learned from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about interacting with civilians.
"You will hear we're going to get back to basics, but I would submit to you that the basics have changed," Brown said.
Locklear spoke for about 40 minutes and then took questions from I Corps soldiers who put him on the spot about nuclear proliferation, U.S. partnerships with India, Japan's strengthening military and Chinese cyber attacks.
Last year, he said, he confronted Chinese officials with evidence about state-sponsored cyber attacks against U.S. institutions during a visit to Beijing with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Some of the material resembled a report released this week by the security firm Mandiant that connected the Chinese military to cyber attacks, Locklear said.
The Chinese officials deflected the American criticism, Locklear said, and characterized themselves as victims of U.S. cyber attacks. He jokingly noted Chinese military equipment looks surprisingly similar to American weapons.