HONOLULU — The Marine Corps stands to see the biggest military increases in Hawaii in coming years as other services here go through less of a change and as all shift from a wartime footing to greater engagement in Asia and the Pacific, officials said at an annual military-business conference Thursday.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, said Hawaii is the "epicenter" of a re-balance of U.S. forces to the region.
"It focuses on continue the strength of our relationships" with allies while forging new military relationships with India and other countries and adjusting U.S. military capability, Locklear said.
The reliance on working with allies and a new emphasis on rotational deployments come as the Pentagon struggles with budget cuts.
The U.S. is seeking to maintain its position of pre-eminence in the region as China rapidly builds up its military.
"They (China) are the only country I know of that has five tactical fighter programs under way at the same time," said Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant, U.S. Pacific Command's deputy commander.
About 400 people attended the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii's 12th annual Hawaii Military Partnership Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and 500 heard Locklear's luncheon keynote speech.
About 900 aviation Marines are coming to Hawaii as part of new Cobra and Huey helicopter and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft squadrons, said Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, commander of Marine Forces Pacific.
The Marines and aircraft have already started arriving.
Four UH-1Y Hueys and five AH-1W Super Cobras — with about 190 Marines and sailors — were at the Kaneohe Bay air station in September for activation of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367.
A total of 27 Hueys and Cobras are expected to arrive in the next couple of years, officials said.
Robling said two squadrons of MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys, a total of 24 aircraft, are scheduled to come to the base in fiscal 2015 and 2016.
Additionally, the Marines will move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa, leaving 10,000 to 11,000 there, with 4,700 to 4,800 going to Guam and 2,700 to Hawaii, Robling said.
"We've got to find a place to live" in Hawaii, Robling said, adding the Marines are conducting environmental reviews now "so we can move those forces out here as soon as we can."
The importance of Hawaii's forward location is exemplified in the Pacific Air Force's "strategic triangle" of Hawaii, Guam and Alaska — from which it can launch fighters and bombers.
Worried that the South China Sea might become a Chinese "Lake Beijing," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late December called for a strategic "diamond" created by Hawaii, Australia, Japan and India to safeguard maritime access.
Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Pacific Air Forces, said new F-35 fighters will come to the Pacific.
"We're still looking at where that's going to be," he said.
Carlisle said the Air Force will make more "robust" its rotation of aircraft in the region.
"We're not going to build new bases or permanently deploy significantly more aircraft out here," he said.
Instead, the Air Force will have the ability to upgrade its capabilities in the region.
"So whether it's Australia, Singapore, potentially Indonesia and the Philippines, all of those are places that we will operate out of, and will rotate folks through there," Carlisle said.
David Carey, chairman of the Chamber's Military Affairs Council, noted that while the number of Navy ships being assigned to San Diego is going up, the total is going down at Pearl Harbor with ship retirements.
Looming over all of the plans is the worry that Congress may not act by March 1 to avert a half-trillion dollars in budget cuts.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the Pentagon had no choice but to prepare for the worst and was ordering the services to curtail some facility maintenance, freeze civilian hiring and develop plans for civilian furloughs.
If the cuts go through, it would mean reductions in ship training and maintenance, reductions in flying hours and pilot training, and "disruptions to almost every weapons modernization and research program," Panetta said.