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Army Pacific commander provides high-tech holiday wish list

Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, speaks to an audience Tuesday at the TechNet Asia-Pacific conference in Honolulu. Wyatt Olson Stars and Stripes

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By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2014

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Army Pacific commander Gen. Vincent Brooks delivered his Christmas wish list to high-tech company reps and engineers Tuesday.

Brooks wants a means to efficiently but securely communicate with partner nations during operations, seamless communication wherever he goes around the world, and “full knowledge” on all terrain before forces physically arrive there.

“These are simple problems,” Brooks joked during the opening speech for the TechNet Asia Pacific conference.

The annual three-day expo in Honolulu is a chance for the defense industry to hear first-hand from command leaders what technological developments they are seeking — and willing to throw their support behind.

Other speakers will include Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry B. Harris; deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command Lt. Gen. Kevin McLaughlin; and commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan.

Brooks described the unbroken system of communication he wants.

“I should be able to leave my headquarters with my communications coming from my desk, to my hand, to my vehicle, to my airplane, to the sedan that meets me at the other end, to the op center that I arrive at in a foreign country,” he said. “I should never lose connectivity. Folks, we can’t do that right now. I need a bunch of engineers to do that, and each one of those interfaces is going to be different.”

He’d also like to see an advance in what he called the “ability to stretch the network in advance” so that Army forces would have accurate, detailed information about terrain.

Brooks visited Indonesia in September during the Army’s Garuda Shield exercise with that nation’s army. It was held in a remote training camp at the far eastern end of Java island.

The U.S. brought surveillance drones, which are fed tactical elevation data before exercises — or real operations — are conducted, he said. But the Army did not possess digital terrain elevation data for the “backwoods of Indonesia,” he said. Without that, he said, “UAVs can’t go up.”

Brooks’ third and final aspiration is perhaps the most important but difficult to achieve: coordinating equipment, communications and logistics between the Army and partner nations — cooperation that’s at times thorny but no longer optional.

He said the Army would “love” to have an alliance structure in Asia that was NATO-like, rather than bilateral.

“But I don’t see that coming. I really don’t,” he said. “That’s just not the way this region is geared. There’s not the same kind of trust, and the baggage of experiences long past endure longer in Asia and the Pacific than they do anywhere else in the world, in my view. So I don’t see us suddenly coming up with an architecture that is standing agreements like they’re described in NATO.”

That leaves the “basic approaches” of the U.S. military as the standard framework for such a network.

“What I mean by that is that if we’re going to have friends who may or may not talk to one another, but will talk to us, then we’re the network.”

Although South Korea and Japan are among America’s closest allies in the Pacific, they cooperate little militarily. Long-standing tensions also exist between other countries in Southeast Asia, and most of them have also been adjusting to a growingly assertive Chinese navy.

And even though the Defense Department is cutting spending and the public is war-weary after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we have to be more out there than ever,” Brooks said. “In my view, the smaller we are – and this is across all of the forces – the more we must be engaged if we’re to retain the position of regional and national and global leadership.

“We’ll have to rely more on our friends than ourselves in a time of crisis.”

Multinational exercises and other military-to-military engagements are the “bread and butter” of building effective coordination with partner nations, he said.

For example, the Army chooses a unit or specialty and matches it with similar capabilities “in one of our friendly countries so that there’s a personal connection, a practical connection that happens, not just a technical connection.”

But the technology needed to blend these forces is lagging, he said.

He again used an example from the exercise in Indonesia. Both armies had identical and advanced radio systems. “And so for once we had the architecture in place between U.S. and Indonesian forces,” he said.

But there was still a language gap for which they found a decidedly low-tech solution by seating bilingual radio operators next to each other.

“It was fascinating to see how people work through these things. But folks, that’s not good enough. If we have to rely on the ingenuity of our people, then we haven’t done enough work to find better technical solutions that can recognize any player and can compensate for things like language gap as well as the technical gap that comes with information assurance on networks.”

Brooks also pointed out that each military technological advancement puts more and more distance between the U.S. and the partners in emerging countries.

“This is one of our extraordinary challenges: how we maintain a cutting edge with the United States, preserve a competitive advantage in a contested space because some are catching up with us, while at the same time accumulating more and more partners who are further and further away from our capabilities.”

In a later speech, Terry Halvorsen, acting chief information officer for the Department of Defense, said that not only should the U.S. be unconcerned about “outrunning” its allies and future partners in military technology, the trend should be encouraged.

“I absolutely want us to be 100 percent ahead of everybody in technology,” he said. The U.S. has based its “warfare game” on high-tech dominance, not high numbers of troops and the like, he said.

“That said, you have to balance it. We’ve got to balance what we want to put out there and what we’re willing to operate on.”

olson.wyatt@stripes.com