Army leaders stress alliances, logistics at Hawaii conference
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser May 22, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — As Army leaders and other military officials gathered in Honolulu last week for the Association of the U.S. Army's Land Forces of the Pacific symposium at the Sheraton Waikiki, mobility and logistics in the vast Pacific region took center stage in many conversations.
The annual conference, which returned in-person last year, attracted 14 chiefs of Army from around the world.
It takes place as analysts have argued about where defense spending should go in the Pacific, a region that the Pentagon has long considered to be the realm of naval commanders. But as tensions with China simmer, the Army has been deploying troops around the region and trying to bolster its relations with other armies in the region. Army leaders want their presence to be known.
"The time is now for land power," said Gen. Charles Flynn, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter, in a keynote address kicking off the conference Tuesday. "The time is now for the United States Army to tell our story about the central role the Army has long played, and is playing, in the Indo-Pacific."
During a panel at the conference in which Flynn shared the stage with Adm. Samuel Paparo, the commander of the U.S. Navy's vast Pacific Fleet, Paparo said that he saw a need to deepen cooperation between forces on both land and sea. In particular, commanders are thinking of how to move their forces across the vast region as well as keeping them supplied with fuel, food and weapons they need to do their jobs.
"Sustainment is the hardest operational environment for a line combat arms commander to visualize and, accordingly, it's got to be the area that we work absolutely hardest on," Paparo said. "The force that teams the best is going to win in the end. And that, in the very end, is in the training of the joint force soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians, Coast Guardsmen, among us all."
The Army has for years been sending its forces around the region through Operation Pathways, which cycles American units in the Pacific through countries around the region as well as calling on them to host foreign forces at American bases for training events as the United States and China compete for influence. Last year, troops from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia trained in Hawaii at the Pohakuloa Training Area.
But as the Army looks to its future on land in the Pacific, in Hawaii the service has been preparing for what could be a fight to renew leases on state land that the military trains on, which are set to expire in 2029.
Since November 2021, when fuel from the Navy's underground Red Hill facility tainted the service's Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people, island residents and leaders have been reassessing their relationship with the military. This month, Joint Task Force Red Hill, the organization tasked with removing fuel from the facility, announced Red Hill's fuel tanks could be emptied as early as January.
As the military prepares to redistribute that fuel, the Pentagon is looking at the future of logistics and operations in Hawaii and around the Pacific.
"Competition requires presence, and if our partners don't want us there, then we can't be present, we can't compete," said Lt. Gen. Xavier Bunson, commander of the Army's I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. I Corps includes several units at JBLM, the 11th Airborne Division in Alaska, the 25th Infantry Division on Oahu and U.S. Army Japan.
Since 2012, the Army has tasked I Corps with focusing on Pacific operations through Pathways. Bunson has been working to streamline communications and organization of his far-flung forces as they conduct missions across their vast area of operations.
"The best way that we can compete is by assuring our partners and our friends in the region that we're going to be there," Bunson said. "Assurance is power. And again, if we take it down to its base level, it's those human relationships that we build over time, through our campaigning effort, that is Pathways."
China has been embroiled in a series of disputes with neighboring countries over territorial and navigation rights in the South China Sea, a critical waterway that a third of all international trade travels through. Beijing considers the entire sea its exclusive territory and has built bases on disputed islands and reefs to assert its claims.
Regional leaders are increasingly concerned that tensions between China and Taiwan could spark a major regional conflict. Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a rogue province, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to bring it under China's control by military force if necessary. A war or blockade of the island could disrupt trade across the Pacific and send ripples through the global economy.
Just south of Taiwan, the Philippines and China have sparred over the disputed islands. In 2016, an international court ruled in the Philippines' favor and declared that Beijing's territorial claims had "no legal basis." But the Chinese military has continued to build bases and regularly intimidates Filipino fishermen in the area.
The Philippines recently elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who campaigned promising to negotiate with Chinese leaders to reduce tensions in disputed territories. But since Marcos took office, Chinese forces have continued to aggressively harass Philippine vessels and relations have soured even further.
After the Philippines signed an agreement with the Pentagon earlier this year, China's ambassador to the country, Huang Xilian, seemingly threatened Filipinos living and working in Taiwan. During an appearance last month at the Manila Forum for Philippines-China Relations, Huang said "the Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose 'Taiwan independence' rather than stoking the fire by offering the U.S. access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait if you care about the 150,000 overseas foreign workers."
The Army's 25th Infantry Division at the Schofield Barracks has been regularly training in the Philippines and hosting Philippine Army troops in Hawaii through Pathways.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, commander of the 25th, told the Star-Advertiser that in the past "when I would talk to Philippine Army generals about the threat from China not just in the South China Sea, but to Taiwan and in the region, they would hand wave it, they would not really address it. They would change the subject … today is different."
Both China and the United States have been embarking on historic arms buying sprees. China now boasts the world's largest Navy as it flexes its military muscles and seeks to assert its territorial claims over its neighbors, and has been building up a missile arsenal to counter American forces. American commanders are blunt in acknowledging their disadvantages in the region, and say they need to get creative.
"You can only get so far, so fast to get to the places we need to be at," Bunson said. "That's why posture becomes increasingly important. What capabilities are we bringing forward when we're on Pathways ? How do we posture ourselves along with our partners to ensure that the things that we're doing have great effect?"
Bunson said that through Pathways, I Corps has troops in the region roughly 8-10 months out of the year. Flynn told the Star-Advertiser he wants to continue to find ways to ensure even more engagement, expand partnerships and make sure U.S. troops are regularly in the area.
"We can get there, but we need to actually be there," Flynn said.
But while American commanders want to maintain a robust presence in the Pacific, they say they don't want a large footprint.
During a LANPAC panel with Flynn and Paparo, vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Donovan said that in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops and commanders took for granted that large operating bases would have not just on-demand medical facilities and logistical support, but many had their own coffee stands, restaurants and other creature comforts.
"We built them wherever, (but) that's not a price tag we want to put on our allies and partners," Donovan said. "We want to be light and mobile and be flexible. That is a a gut-wrenching discussion when you have that talk with your forces, that you're not going to have the things you became comfortable with."
Commanders are already looking at new ways to move around and share resources. During this year's iteration of Exercise Balikatan in the Philippines, soldiers with the 25th Infantry and Marines with the Oahu-based 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment worked with the Navy to conduct helicopter operations among islands in the Luzon Strait just south of Taiwan.
Army leaders operated out of a Navy ship, the USS Miguel Keith, maintaining a headquarters onboard that was in communication both with forces moving through the islands by helicopter as well as their superiors operating on the Philippine mainland.
Ryan, who was in the Philippines for the exercise and rode along in the helicopters, said that during the maneuvers they brought "tactical and operational mobility of forces and capability up into the Luzon straits to islands in areas where even some of the Philippine Army and Marines that we took up there had never been up there before."
Chinese officials have roundly condemned ongoing United States training around the region and accused neighboring countries of being American lackeys in an effort to "contain" China's growth as a major global power. It hasn't helped that several United States lawmakers and think tanks have themselves spoken of "containing China" and asserted a need to maintain American dominance. Meanwhile, American officials say Chinese leaders aren't responding to diplomatic overtures.
Ryan stressed that in his view, the exercises were defensive in nature and fell strictly within territories claimed by countries that have invited U.S. troops to train in an effort to assert their own sovereignty, but he acknowledged that the two sides appear to be talking past each other and there are no signs tensions could cool any time soon.
"I don't want to say we're at a breaking point by any means, but I think we're at a point where the dialogue has to be the next step," Ryan said. "How do we increase dialogue with (China) to ensure that our signaling, the signaling component of our deterrence efforts, is coming through loud and clear ?"
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