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US forces must do more to keep lethal edge, military commanders urge

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 21, 2017

The U.S. military remains a nimble and powerful deterrent against global dangers, but it must do more to retain its lethal edge. That was the predominate message during the first day of the West 2017 gathering of the nation’s top brass and security experts at the downtown San Diego Convention Center.

“To ensure America’s beacon of light continues to shine, even into the farthest and darkest corners of the world, we must continue to evolve the innovative capabilities that allow the good to overcome evil,” Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the U.S. Pacific Command leader, said in a speech Tuesday afternoon.

“Our country must retain credible combat power in concert with like-minded allies and partners, to preserve unimpeded access to all the shared domains — sea, air, land, space and cyber. And the time to act is now, for I believe we’re approaching an inflection point in history,” he added. “We’re certainly not approaching the end of history. Freedom, justice and a rules-based international order hang in the balance. And the scale won’t tip of its own accord, or simply because good people wish it so.”

Co-sponsored by the nonprofits U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA International, the annual West confab kicked off with a morning speech by retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis. It then featured sessions throughout the afternoon that drew Naval Warfare commander Rear Adm. Timothy Szymanski and Pacific Fleet Submarine Force commander Rear Adm. Frederick “Fritz” Roegge, plus many of the highest-ranking officers of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

More than 300 of the nation’s top defense contractors, high-tech firms and universities joined them, making the event one of the largest collections of military and industrial minds on the planet. The conference is set to continue through Thursday.

Tuesday’s discussions, both formal and those whispered in the convention center’s corridors, took place as President Donald Trump’s administration strives to get its sea legs, tensions rise in Europe following ongoing Russian-backed incursions in Ukraine and disputes simmer between China and America’s allies over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Appearing by a videoconferencing link from Boston following a trip to the Munich Security Conference, Stavridis warned that America’s NATO allies fret about what appear to be inconsistencies in the Trump administration’s foreign policy, including a denunciation of Russia’s meddling in Ukraine alongside “a flirtation with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin out of the White House.”

Stavridis, the former Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe, said it was “hard to accept at face value” Trump’s insistence that his administration is working like a well-oiled machine, but he urged the president’s critics to “give him some space” to tinker with his staff “and maybe it’ll start running better.”

Once reported to be on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice president, Stavridis met with Trump in New York on Dec. 8, fueling rumors that he would join retired flag officers such as the Marine four-stars James Mattis and John Kelly in the Republican’s administration. But that didn’t happen.

Echoing key portions of Stavridis’ address Tuesday, Pacific Command’s Harris said American forces must continue to train to fight wars overseas. He pointed to challenges such as ongoing atomic weapons and ballistic missile tests by North Korea strongman Kim Jung-Un.

“Allied and partner nations will hear this message and hopefully be reassured that the U.S. commitment to the Naval region in the Pacific will be as strong as ever. And America is looking at new ways to maintain the rules-based security order, and they’d be right,” Harris said. “And potential adversaries, upon hearing this message, should recognize that their propagandized attempts to sell America’s decline is a bunch of hooey.”

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©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of U.S. Pacific Command, speaks at the WEST 2017 naval conference and exposition in San Diego, Feb. 21, 2017.
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