US, Singaporean troops drill at Marine training area in Hawaii

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: July 18, 2012

The two Stryker armored vehicles pulled up outside a courtyard with 7-foot mud walls and disgorged about a dozen Singaporean army soldiers and a lesser number from Schofield Barracks who lined up on either side of a gate leading into the compound.

The objective was to clear the area of enemy fighters, and the brief blank-fire gunbattle that followed resulted in a wounded Singaporean soldier and a captured combatant.

Tuesday's exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows was a company-level drill, but it's also part of a big push by the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region with the war in Iraq over, Af­ghani­stan nearing an end and China's military growth a continuing worry.

The Bellows training is part of Tiger Balm, annual exercises with the Singaporean army that date to 1981. The renewed emphasis on Asia and the Pacific has heightened the importance of military engagement with old partners such as Singapore as the United States seeks to create new training and basing opportunities where it can.

This month, Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command, visited the Philippines while his four-star counterpart in charge of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Cecil Haney, was in Vietnam.

U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter previously said it conducted 130 engagements in 2010 — a 30 percent increase over preceding years — with countries such as Japan, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The command said Tuesday it expects to conduct more than 150 multilateral engagements for 2012.

The big-picture importance of training with the Singaporean army was not lost on Lt. Col. Todd Fox, commander of Schofield's 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhounds," whose soldiers were part of the Bellows exercise Tuesday.

"The new shift in the focus to the Pacific has given us a lot of opportunities that we haven't had in the last couple of decades, really," Fox said. "We've had historical partnerships with Singapore and New Zealand and Australia, but recently we haven't been able to kind of take advantage of those like we used to, and in the last year or so, we really re-energized a lot of those programs."

Tuesday's mock raid took place at the Marine Corps' $42 million Infantry Immersion Trainer at Bellows, a series of buildings mocked up like an Afghan village complete with role players, piped-in sounds of dogs barking and children playing, fake poppies and cabbage growing, and scent misters that pump out aromas ranging from fresh-baked bread to decomposing bodies.

Although the training area evokes southern Af­ghani­stan, the Marines' 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay held a ceremony in May marking the last scheduled deployment to Af­ghani­stan by its infantry battalions.

Instead, a battalion of Kaneohe Bay Marines recently was sent to Oki­nawa with some Marines from the same unit earlier deploying to Australia.

For Tuesday's exercise the Bellows village notionally became an "undeveloped or Third World country," Fox said.

The courtyard clearing was followed by a sniper shooting blanks from an AK-47 from a second-story window at the troops. A culminating exercise today at Bellows involves coordinating with a country's leadership and police to secure a polling site for an upcoming election, Fox said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services