Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski will leave U.S. Army Pacific Command this summer. ()
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As the Defense Department renews its focus on Asia-Pacific, the Army is showing its commitment to the region by dedicating 79,000 troops, putting a four-star general in charge, and increasing its exercises and engagements with partner nations, the outgoing commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific said.
“It demonstrates the commitment our entire Army is making toward this entire rebalance,” Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski told Army Times on May 20.
The Asia-Pacific region, which includes 36 countries, 16 time zones and covers 9,000 miles, is critical, Wiercinski said.
The region is home to the largest democracy in the world, three of the world’s largest economies, seven of the 10 largest armies in the world and four of the most populous countries in the world, he said.
“This is a human domain,” Wiercinski said. “The sea and air are absolutely critical, and you need to keep these lanes of trade and communication open, but on the ground, it’s people. Two years ago, it was 60 percent of the world’s economy and now it’s 62 percent. If you’re not looking at the Asia-Pacific, you’ll be behind the curve.”
Wiercinski is scheduled to relinquish command of USARPAC on July 2 to Lt. Gen. Vince Brooks. Brooks, now commander of U.S. Army Central, will receive his fourth star.
Having a four-star general in charge of USARPAC — a first in 40 years — demonstrates “the importance we place on land forces in the region,” Wiercinski said.
“It gives our commander a little more foot in the door and demonstrates our walking the talk out here in the Asia-Pacific when we said the Army was serious about this rebalance,” he said.
Another sign of the Army’s commitment is the decision to focus I Corps and the 25th Infantry Division back on the Asia-Pacific region, he said.
Also in the region are Eighth Army, the 2nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army Japan, U.S. Army Alaska, nine brigade combat teams, two combat aviation brigades, 11 multifunctional brigades, the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, the 311th Signal Command, the 18th Medical Command, the 94th Air and Missile Defense Command, the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade, and National Guard and Army Reserve troops, he said.
“We deployed so many soldiers out of here the past 11 years [to Iraq and Afghanistan], the [Pacific Command] commander didn’t have his Army,” Wiercinski said. “Now he has 79,000 Army forces back in his area of operations. And it demonstrates to our partners, allies and friends that we’re serious.”
Wiercinski said the command was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan when he first took command in March 2011.
Since 2001, more than 150,000 soldiers stationed in the region deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were continuously rotating forces into the [Central Command area of responsibility], you either had our brigade combat teams preparing to go or coming home or in recovery,” he said. “They weren’t available to assist the PACOM commander in any contingency he might have, and I wanted to give him back his active-duty forces so we were ready to go and prepared.”
As the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and is now drawing down in Afghanistan, USARPAC slowly regained its forces and also worked to build its command and control capabilities.
“Today, we have a contingency command post that I would put up against anyone, deployable in 18 hours of notification and has been exercised with multiple partners and allies,” Wiercinski said.
The contingency command post has about 95 people, and it’s “incredibly efficient, highly deployable, and it packs a punch,” he said.
Engaging regional partners
To build and maintain partnerships and relationships, USARPAC has upped its exercises and engagements, giving as many as 15,000 soldiers the chance to train with partner armies across the Asia-Pacific region.
“We need to make sure we continuously engage,” Wiercinski said. “Engagement is so important in this theater. Face-to-face is so important. We can alleviate rumor, innuendo because we have a relationship, because we’ve established trust, and you don’t establish trust over a computer.”
Building relationships now also will help if the U.S. has to respond to an emergency or provide humanitarian assistance, Wiercinski said.
“If something happens, you’ve got to move quickly, and you don’t have time to get to know people because you’re losing lives and property in the process,” he said. “If we don’t understand the culture, if we don’t understand the people, we’re going to waste time.”
This is especially important because of the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters, he said.
“Out here, I can’t predict war, but I can predict natural disaster,” he said. “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen every year, and it’s going to be bad. It’s a function of where we live. We have to be able to respond now.”
Each year, U.S. soldiers participate in 24 large-scale exercises with 14 different countries.
This includes adding four major exercises in the past year — two with Australia and two with New Zealand — and working to restart programs that have atrophied over the past 11 years with countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India and the Philippines.
USARPAC also is seeking new engagements with Bangladesh, Vietnam and Nepal.
So far, despite the ongoing budget cuts and the effects of sequestration, Wiercinski said he’s been able to preserve all of the exercises scheduled for this fiscal year.
“I’ve had to trim some of these exercises a bit and become more efficient, but everything I’ve promised, I’ve been able to preserve so far,” he said. “I’m hoping that will continue in the future.”
Uncertainty affects training
Looking ahead, Wiercinski said he’s concerned about the effects of sequestration and budget cuts.
“We’re going to have the equipment, we’re going to have the people, we’re just not going to be able to train with it,” he said. “Our infrastructure is critical. The longer this all goes on and the longer it continues this way, the harder it’s going to be.”
Until the Army has a clear way ahead and a budget, and “until we get the facts on what we can and can’t do, it’s going to be hit and miss, a month at a time,” Wiercinski said.
“It’s going to take leadership and focus to make sure things don’t fall off the edge,” he said.
Another issue is the volatility on the Korean Peninsula, he said.
“We need to be absolutely focused,” he said. “I think that’s something we absolutely need to watch, and we need to maintain our relationships through the AOR. It’s going to take all of us, and that includes China, to keep this theater in Phase Zero operations.”
Phase Zero operations refer to shaping activities designed to promote stability and prevent conflict, such as military-to-military engagements.
As he prepares to relinquish command and retire after more than 34 years in uniform, Wiercinski said he hopes to continue to contribute to the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.
“I’d really like to leverage these past eight years of Asia-Pacific experience,” he said. “I’ve made some tremendous friends, our neighbors, partners, allies. It’s been an honor to serve. I will miss it dearly, but it’s time.”
Wiercinski said his first assignment as a second lieutenant was with the 25th Infantry Division.
“The thing that captured my attention was we got to travel and work with other nations and we got to see other countries and cultures,” he said. “That kept me in. That was exciting. I learned something new every day, and I want that for our soldiers. As they come out of these years of conflict, I want to give them something new to focus on, to pique their interest, get them into different parts of the world.”
Wiercinski said he firmly believes soldiers make great ambassadors for the United States.
“Soldiers will sell our country,” he said.