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Northwest critical to military's pivot to Pacific

BANGOR, Wash. — The Northwest is key to the Obama administration’s rebalance of military forces toward the Pacific, the man directing Navy efforts in the region is telling local sailors this week.

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the Pacific Fleet, visited naval bases Monday and Tuesday in Bremerton and Bangor and Wednesday and Thursday will travel to Whidbey Island and Everett.

“The strategic value of the Northwest can’t be overstated,” said Harris, who commanded a P-3 Orion patrol squadron at Whidbey in 1995-96. “This is a huge center of gravity for the U.S. military. I think it’s critical. That’s why I’m taking time out of my schedule to come up and visit this area.”

It is Harris’ first trip here since becoming one of about a dozen four-star admirals and assuming command of the Pacific Fleet on Oct. 16.

About 52 percent of the Navy’s surface ships now are in the Pacific. By 2020, it’s planned to climb to 60 percent, Harris said, as the country reorients its foreign and military policy toward a strategic part of the world. Submarines, including 13 based at Bremerton and Bangor, are already 60-40, Harris said.

The most advanced weapons systems will be assigned to the Pacific, including EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and P-8 Poseidon patrol planes at Whidbey, Zumwalt-class super destroyers, possibly at Everett, F-35 joint strike fighters and new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carriers.

Directing the advanced weapons will be superior officers, including Navy Region Northwest commander Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, who’ll take over this summer in Guam.

“Most important is putting leaders in key positions who are experts or served in the Pacific before,” Harris said. “This is not a training ground.”

Harris epitomizes that philosophy. Born in Japan and raised in the United States, he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1978 and is serving his seventh tour in the Pacific. His graduate education, which includes Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Oxford University, focused on East Asia security.

Across-the-board cuts to the defense budget, called sequestration, could disrupt the Navy’s rebalancing efforts. Congress passed legislation in December that eliminated some of the spending cuts for 2014-15.

“You fund what you believe in. You fund what’s important,” Harris said, quoting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “I think we’ll continue to fund it.

“It can be affected, but I think in the aggregate we’re going to march right down the road to rebalance, and Washington state will play a key role. It’s an exciting time to be living in the great Northwest.”

The rebalance is more than aircraft carriers and submarines. It’s diplomatic, economic, political and military. Military is the most visible and economy the most important, Harris said. Navy ships based or maintained here help keep shipping safe and tensions low so trade can flourish.

“It means the (Kitsap) area remains relevant,” Harris said. “There will always be work for the shipyard.”

North Korea and its effort to develop nuclear weapons and missiles remains the biggest concern, but something new is always popping up. The Thai army declared martial law Tuesday while American forces were participating in exercises there. A Chinese oil rig erected in a contested area of the South China Sea sparked riots last week in Vietnam. The United States and several other countries cooperated in the search for a disappeared Malaysian airliner and responded to a sunken South Korean ferry. It’s never dull.

“It’s a fantastic job to be Pacific Fleet commander,” Harris said. “I’m happy to have it.”
 

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