HONOLULU — The head of the U.S. Army in the Pacific said Hawaii is expected to keep its 22,500 active-duty soldiers as the Army downsizes, but it makes sense to re-evaluate whether the Stryker Brigade should keep its 320 armored vehicles or revert to a light infantry unit without Strykers.
"We have three additional Stryker brigades at Fort Lewis (Wash.) that we didn't have 10 years ago," said Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, who will soon step down as head of the Fort Shafter command. "That's a lot of Stryker brigades."
A fifth Stryker brigade is based in Alaska. Wiercinski said the 25th Infantry Division has just one light infantry brigade as the "Tropic Lightning" division ends its Afghanistan duties and returns to its jungle-fighting roots.
"If I'm focusing the 25th Infantry Division now on Southeast Asia, and back to being the jungle fighters that they've always been, what's my relevance of Strykers?" Wiercinski said in an interview Tuesday.
Maybe that relevance still is there, and maybe it's not, he said.
"Let's take a look at that," he added.
Schofield's Stryker Brigade has about 4,200 soldiers, and its 3rd Brigade, a light infantry unit, has about 3,500 soldiers.
Wiercinski said the Army constantly reviews its force structure as conditions change. There is no dedicated study examining whether the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Schofield should be returned to a light infantry unit, he added.
"We'll take a look and we'll say, ‘OK, five years down the road, where do we need Stryker brigade combat teams for the (U.S. Pacific Command) commander? Where are they best situated? Where are they best used?'" Wiercinski said.
The three-star general spoke to the Star-Advertiser as he plans to retire after a 34-year Army career that included four postings to Hawaii and more than two years in his current job.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks will take over July 2 as a four-star general — joining Navy and Air Force commands on Oahu with the same rank. The head of U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith is a four-star admiral.
The Army change reflects the renewed importance of the Pacific, and de-emphasis of Europe with the end of the Cold War.
Wiercinski said U.S. Army Pacific was a four-star command, but was downgraded 40 years ago when the reverse was true and the Cold War raged.
A finite number of four-star billets exist in the Defense Department, and officials say U.S. Army Europe was previously downgraded to three-star status, meaning U.S. Army Pacific could be elevated.
If the Army does eventually decide to move its approximately 320 Stryker vehicles out of Hawaii, such a decision would reverse a more than $1.5 billion effort that's been continuing since 2001, when the Army decided to base the eight-wheeled vehicles here.
The transformation faced two lawsuits and criticism that the vehicles were better suited to larger training ranges in Washington state.
A $42 million Battle Area Complex at Schofield has yet to be fully used for Stryker maneuvers and gunnery because depleted uranium from an old weapons system was found in a firing impact area, requiring involvement by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Wiercinski said when the Army pushed for a Stryker Brigade for Hawaii, there was only one other in the region, and that was in Alaska. The Army wanted the second unit in Hawaii to be able to rapidly respond in the region using C-17 cargo planes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, he said.
"That made total sense," Wiercinski said.
He acknowledges there are shortcomings for the Strykers on Oahu with a lack of big training ranges.
"Right now for training purposes, I can't utilize the capability of that Stryker to maximum range," he said.
Wiercinski said the Army has to "look at the whole structure" of the Army in the Pacific. But, he added, "we're not going to change the number of brigade combat teams."
About 79,000 soldiers are based in Asia and the Pacific, he said. Even though the Army overall is decreasing from about 530,000 active-duty soldiers to 490,000, Wiercinski said the current Pacific total likely "is going to stay right where it is."
The Army's Alaska brigades are focused on Mongolia, Nepal, northern India, northern Japan and southern New Zealand, Wiercinski said, while Schofield's soldiers are focused on Southeast Asia.
"They've always been the ones that were relevant in a jungle environment," Wiercinski said.
Each year, U.S. Army Pacific conducts 24 large-scale exercises with 14 of the region's 36 nations, officials said.
"We've got some great things going on," Wiercinski said.
The 82nd Airborne Division will be parachuting with the Indonesian military in Indonesia, and Alaska airborne soldiers will be parachuting with Australian troops in that country, he said.
"I think the way we've developed and built our engagement over the last two years — I'm very proud of that," Wiercinski said. "I'm very proud of the fact that we're back training with New Zealand, we're back training with Indonesia. We're doing superb work with India."