The Army in the Pacific is starting a new deployment concept this week that sends soldiers out into the region for multiple exercises and longer stays in foreign countries that are intended to reassure partner nations and develop closer relationships as the United States continues its "rebalance" to the Pacific.
Developed out of Fort Shafter, "Pacific Pathways" also is a new Army strategy to stay relevant as large occupational land forces that are costly and slow to mobilize become less viable.
About 550 soldiers with the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Washington state and supporting units are heading to Indonesia for the exercise Garuda Shield in the first iteration of Pacific Pathways, the Army said.
The soldiers will utilize nine Stryker armored vehicles and eight helicopters.
About 500 other 2nd Stryker and supporting soldiers will head to Malaysia with 11 Stryker vehicles and three helicopters for the exercise Keris Strike, which overlaps with the Indonesia training.
The first group of 550 soldiers and others will then leapfrog over to Japan for Orient Shield, the Army said.
The 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks will provide the headquarters element for all three exercises.
Some of the soldiers will be gone for about three months.
Next year, the cycle for soldiers chosen for Pacific Pathways — possibly from Schofield Barracks — will include even longer deployments with the same units heading from exercise to exercise to exercise and training with host nations in between, according to the Army.
Until now, the Army hasn't really defined in detail what Pacific Pathways is.
That set up some criticism that the land service, in sending out units to roam around Asia that also will be prepared to respond in the event of a natural disaster, was trying to become the Marines.
Not so, the Army has said repeatedly.
One Army official who gave a background briefing on Pacific Pathways said, "These (Army) guys are on land doing land stuff."
According to U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, seven of the world's 10 largest armies are in the Asia-Pacific, and 21 of 27 nations with armed forces have an army chief of defense.
Brig. Gen. Robert J. Ulses, assistant chief of staff of operations for the Army headquarters, said Pacific Pathways is an "innovative approach" to meeting U.S. Pacific Command requirements for participation in already scheduled exercises throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
"Employing our forces in this manner provides the U.S. Army an efficient and effective way of increasing and sustaining unit readiness and improving the availability of our forces in theater while also strengthening military-to-military bonds with partner and allied nations," Ulses said in an email.
U.S. soldiers in the Pacific already participate in a slew of exercises in foreign nations every year as a way to build better relationships.
But one unit would go to one exercise for a few weeks and go home, and another unit would do the same in another nation. None of those were linked together, the Army said.
The challenge, officials said, was to leverage all those routine exercises in a way that benefits the Army from a readiness standpoint and lengthens what is seen by some countries as a reassuring U.S. military presence in their lands.
In between Garuda Shield in Indonesia and Orient Shield in Japan, the Washington soldiers out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord will work on individual and group training and cultural relationship-building in the host nations, the Army said.
Lt. Col. Derrick Cheng, a 25th Infantry Division spokesman, said the first iteration of Pacific Pathways also pushes the Washington-based soldiers forward of the international dateline into Asia for an increased Army presence.
The soldiers are heading to Indonesia this week and next for Garuda Shield, which begins in September and runs through the month, Cheng said.
The Malaysia exercise starts in mid-September, he said.
Another aspect of Pacific Pathways is that with the end of the Iraq War and drawdown in Afghanistan, the Army said it now is sending its highest-trained troops out into the region.
The Washington soldiers went through the National Training Center in California in June, which in the past was the final step before a combat deployment.
Overarching Pacific Pathways is the stated goal of U.S. policymakers not to get stuck in protracted land wars with lots of troops on the ground.
That has put a premium on the ability to be fast, lethal and self-sufficient — or more expeditionary, like the Marines.
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, noted that the theater "is largely seen as maritime. So the forces that are leading the way in Asia and the Pacific are the Navy, No. 1, the Air Force and the Marines."
But there's still a place for the Army.
"Even if we're not leading with our Army in the rebalance, the military component of the rebalance, that doesn't mean that armies aren't important to many of these other countries. So there's a natural liaison (with the Army)," Glosserman said.
And the Army, like all of the U.S. military, has to become more expeditionary — whether it ruffles Marine Corps feathers or not, he said.
"That is really very much the way that militaries will fight," Glosserman said. "We'll be doing this in a lighter fashion. We'll be doing it more quickly. So I think the ability of the Army to fulfill that mission is an important adjustment to just the realities of 21st-century warfare, and I think of war fighting in the Asia-Pacific region."