The Army is growing its force in the Pacific region, keeping rotational forces there longer with plans to increase the number of soldiers they send, and soon beginning a new division-strength rotation with thousands of soldiers going for short-term deployments.
And they’re not going to Korea.
They are sweeping to the South China Sea and surrounding areas, all in an effort to expand the Army’s presence in containing a resurging China and multiply forces in a hard-to-reach area.
The soldiers in those units are reaching back into the Army’s recent past. They’re finding their way on missions that look much different than past deployments that involved vehicle patrols around remote bases and acting as police for tribal conflicts.
Instead, they’re manning and moving missile defense systems that scoot around and between small island strongholds, throwing wires to run communications across vast expanses of ocean or opening ports at waterfronts so that munitions, food and medicine can reach those in the direct fight should China’s moves escalate into violence.
And that role differs not only from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and special operations forces-led counterterrorism missions of recent years. It will be a different role than the Army performs anywhere else, and it might be a model for the future of near-peer fights.
In Europe and across major combat operations in recent wars, the Army has been the center of focus for how U.S. military power flows into an operation.
But in the maritime-dominant Indo-Pacific Command, the Army may serve more as an enabler, keeping sea lanes open and airwaves clear to beat back ballistic missile launches and electronic jamming so that the Air Force’s planes can take off, the Navy’s ships can maneuver and the Marines and select light Army units can engage enemies directly.
The Army has an estimated 85,000 soldiers dedicated to the region, wrote Col. Derrick Cheng, U.S. Army Pacific Command spokesman.
Those troops are parceled out across an area that’s hard to fathom. The Pacific Ocean alone covers more area than all of the land masses on the planet. It is 15 times larger than the United States, has seven of the world’s 10 largest armies and it is home to 24 of the world’s 36 megacities. All that is spread across more than a dozen time zones.
Those 85,000 U.S. soldiers include an estimated 12,800 in Alaska; 18,400 in Washington; 23,500 in Hawaii; 1,700 in Japan and 16,500 in South Korea, all of them forward based.
Another 4,700 rotate into South Korea annually, and the Pacific Pathways program takes 900 to 1,100 soldiers into partner countries, previously for a few weeks but most recently three months in Thailand and four months in the Philippines.
The Pathways program is expected to grow to 1,500 or 1,700 soldiers in the coming years.
A new rotation called Defender Pacific will send a division headquarters with multiple brigades, Gen. Robert Brown, the top commander over the Army’s Pacific forces, announced recently.
About 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers will deploy for Defender Pacific, which will likely be once a year.
That exercise will focus on the South China Sea or East China Sea area and run between 30 to 45 days.
The soldiers will be deployed suddenly, in keeping with the dynamic flexing concept that is part of the National Defense Strategy, keeping U.S. forces and adversaries on their toes.
Existing rotations and forces stationed in the region would remain in their assigned missions and the new rotations would add to that force strength, Brown said.
U.S. forces, including Army special operations forces, Marines and Navy personnel, recently conducted an exercise known as a joint airfield seizure on the only Philippine-controlled island in a hotly contested area of the South China sea known as Pagasa.
It was the first such modern exercise of its kind with the joint force and it was aimed at what Filipino leadership sees as an encroaching China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s official message at the time was to tell the Chinese government not to encroach on Pagasa or other territory so that the two nations could “be friends,” but he also shared a warning.
“If you make moves there, that’s a different story,” Duterte said. “I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for suicide mission.’ ”
While Marines and SOF elements advised the nation’s military in the bloody, drawn-out siege and retaking of the Filipino city of Marawi in 2017, it has been Army advisers who are helping their military build their own versions of brigade combat teams.
The Army’s push makes sense to retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation.
“More complex terrain means you can’t deploy as large a formation,” he told Army Times. “You need to go probably with a battalion, smaller teams, not mechanized but airborne, SOF, light infantry, by and large work best."
He added that the formations that the Army brings have to fight alongside the partner nations they’re working with. Most of the Asian militaries training with the United States are Army-centric and lack big armor.
That pairs with other Army exercises to bolster the capabilities of partner militaries in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan.
All are seen as key enablers to share some of the burden containing China, experts said.
Much of that rests in the “three-line configuration” perceived by Chinese military officials when they look to the United States’ position in the Pacific, according to “Archipelagic Defense: The Japan-U.S. Alliance and Preserving Peace and Stability in the Western Pacific,” by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
Those consist of three arcing lines along which the United States has positioned bases or at least airfields to cover the great distances of the region. The partner forces offer significant boosts to power projection, and China sees that too, offering economic aid and other incentives to try and lure some of those countries away from U.S. influence.
The three arcs start close to China, the first line sweeping from Japan and South Korea to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The second line connects Guam and Australia and the last line extends from Hawaii northward to the Aleutians and ending in Alaska.
The combined lines, in the view of Chinese planners, link a network of supporting bases, ports and access points.
But Chinese military leaders see potential vulnerabilities in that chain.
“A China without Taiwan will not be able to break out of the ‘first island chain’ and be denied entry into the Pacific, so much so that its southeastern territory will be devoid of any security,” Chinese military expert Gong Li stated. “On the other hand, if the Taiwan problem is resolved, the door to the Pacific Ocean will be opened for mainland China, thus breaking the first island chain.”
Army’s changing role
The Army will have to recognize that it will likely not be the focus of large-scale combat in the Pacific region but can nonetheless contribute, experts said.
Christopher Dougherty is a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security and a former airborne infantryman who served with 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Dougherty told Army Times that the Army’s traditional role has been as a “large force with staying power.” But the question looms as to whether it is suited to distributed operations in a maritime environment.
“There’s a constant tension. Army forces are big, they are heavy and they take a long time to get anywhere,” he said. “The Army has been trying to square that since the invention of the tank.”
Dougherty said the Army has to answer that critical question of how to project force quickly and bring what’s needed to the fight.
“They’re not going to be the supported force in the Pacific,” he said. “The key thing for the Army in the Pacific is wrapping their head around it. They’re starting to do this.”
“It’s a flip in mindset,” he said.
Research supports Dougherty’s insights.
Equipment and forces deploying from the U.S. West Coast would take 12 days at a minimum to reach Okinawa, Japan, Krepinevich wrote in his Archipelagic Defense report.
And ground forces would take longer.
BCTs: 29 days by air
A BCT’s full load out would take 37 days by ship and 29 days by air to travel from the U.S. mainland to the “first island” chain, or those closest to mainland China in the South and East China Seas, Krepinevich wrote.
To minimize some of those delays, the report recommends forward stationing more troops in areas of the Pacific and also deploying soldiers from bases in South Korea to where they’re needed.
Krepinevich also points to the use of Army air assault such as the 101st Airborne Division, airborne units such as the 82nd Airborne and mission-specific, rapid response units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment for light infantry work.
Col. Jerry Hall is the deputy branch chief for theater exercise at USARPAC and oversees the more than 30 exercises the Army works in the region.
Hall told Army Times that the challenges of the region force planners and leaders to conceptualize how the Army will fight differently than in Europe or other theaters.
“On small islands, small atolls, there’s not as much space for large formations,” Hall said. “Spread out over more islands presents mission command and communications challenges.”
He pointed to the recent Pacific Pathways that saw the 1st Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, hit the Philippines. Within a very short period an infantry company with enablers loaded onto two C-130 transport planes and flew to Palau, a small island nation that hadn’t seen an Army presence since 1982.
Soldiers did jungle, patrolling and marksmanship training while enablers worked communications between the island and elements on Guam and in the Philippines, he said.
Since the Pathways program started it was seen as a way to have forces west of the International Date Line should a crisis occur, Hall said. That would give the Army a flexible way to use its formations in an expeditionary mission.
“But we never exercised it,” Hall said.
The Pathways rotations and upcoming Defender Pacific aim to put those promises into the regular, working role of Army forces.
Hall, also a student of history, said looking back to World War II could give soldiers a snapshot of what soldiering in the Pacific might mean.
“Unless we’re on the Asian land mass you won’t see major land operations,” he said.
The best analogy would see soldiers running missile defense and security at airfields and ports, and seizing airfields to “enable future operations.”
Fires, air defense and helicopters
Rather than rolling tanks across fields or flanking vehicle formations with upgunned Strykers in Europe, the bulk of the Army’s gear will have to target ways to beat back China’s weapons systems and position.
A key capability the Army is using to get into the potential Pacific fight is long-range precision fires; it’s a top priority for modernization.
The Army chose the region as the first arena to test portions of its newest, evolving doctrine – multi-domain operations. The MDO Task Force led an array of precision strikes last year during the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercise, the world’s largest maritime military exercise.
Soldiers conducted their first sinking exercise, using long-range artillery, air attacks and shore-based missiles to hit a decommissioned ship. The task force included 500 personnel with the 17th Field Artillery Brigade, running a headquarters that exploited simulated enemy weaknesses to create a bubble of time to hit the target.
Anti-ship missiles are a key priority for both Army and Marine formations in the region. Both services are looking at “coastal defense,” essentially anti-ship missiles. With a few, well-placed batteries of such mobile weapons, small numbers of troops could control critical sea lanes, experts said.
Both the Marines and Army have looked at using the existing HIMARS system, which has been in operation extensively in recent conflicts. But the system was not designed to factor in additional variables that shooting platforms face when targeting a system at sea. So both services are pursuing new systems that would meet that mission.
An Army Lessons Learned report from the 2017 Pacific Sentry exercise noted that to mitigate the “tyranny of time and distance” the Army will have to identify alternative landing zones and preposition supplies, wrote Brig. Gen. Steve Bullard, then director of Mobility Forces.
Bullard referenced the concept of “adaptive basing,” which means moving transportation assets around the theater because airfields are threatened or denied. No more piles of food, fuel, munitions and spare parts at well-fortified locations mostly free from attack.
Everything goes mobile across farther distances than the Army has had to contend with in a long time.
Partly, the Army and Marine Corps have some of that in place. The Army has prepositioned stocks of equipment for arriving troops to use when in theater. The Marine Corps uses the Maritime Prepositioning Ship program to keep stocks of gear and supplies afloat to pull into port and meet Marines as they head to the fight.
Some argue that both practices need serious updating as they’re only useable at certain deep-water ports that might be inaccessible in a high-end, near-peer fight.
Other big Army priorities fall closely in line with the Pacific theater’s needs — air missile defense is a reviving artform and funding priority for the Army. Electronic warfare and countering such effects is being integrated into formations.
In March, Brown ticked off recent events that showcased the Army’s attempt to get back after efficient AMD: the restarted Roving Sands defense training exercises, a reactivated 38th ADA brigade and a new ADA battalion, both last fall.
On the force structure side, Brig. Gen. Clement Coward, commander of the 32nd AMD, said they’re working to get AMD brigades and battalions into corps and division warfighting exercises.
The goal with those moves and improving the stock of AMD systems is to meet “the capabilities of Russia and China in their respective theaters by 2022.”
Starting in 2018, the Army began putting cyber electromagnetic activities, or CEMA, teams down at the disposal of brigade commanders to help give those formations more of a complete suite of capabilities for expeditionary style ops.
Previously, CEMA was only available at division or corps level.
The Army is even referring to the Pacific as it tells industry what it wants from its next helicopter.
The Future Long Range Assault Aircraft is designed in part to be a UH-60 Black Hawk replacement.
One of the several capabilities that the Army wants out of the new helicopter is a “self-deployment mission,” basically getting a stripped-down version to another location without being flown or floated by plane or ship.
In official documents, the Army said that self-deployment mission “represents the standard long- range overwater planning for the longest segment of the shortest possible route across the Pacific Ocean, which is from Earekcson, (Alaska) to Chitose, Japan.”
To ensure the helicopter can make it, they want it to fly at least 1,725 nautical miles on its own.
That would still be thousands of miles from the fight in the South or East China Seas.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.