Military budget cuts and unexpected crises from Liberia to Ukraine have not yet distracted the Army from its expanding work along the Pacific Rim, the Army’s Pacific commander said this week during a visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where the Pacific shift has taken center stage.
In fact, Army Pacific has more soldiers assigned to it than it did two years ago at its bases in Japan, Alaska, Hawaii and Washington state. It has 106,000 soldiers under its command, up from 68,000 in 2012 when more troops were training for deployments to Afghanistan.
“The Army has done a superb job even in that time of pressure to retain the forces aligned to the Pacific,” Army Pacific Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks told The News Tribune.
That’s significant for the South Sound military community because it means the Army has placed a priority on sustaining its West Coast forces. It also means local soldiers are more likely to be picked for training missions with Asian allies than they are to be deployed to conflicts in the Middle East.
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The trend should hold for at least the next two years, Brooks said. That’s when forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration would kick in and compel the Army to slash tens of thousands of positions for active-duty soldiers. At JBLM, planners have identified a worst-case scenario of 11,000 fewer soldiers, on top of 5,000 soldiers already gone from the base’s wartime peak.
“I’d like to say that we’re relatively stable, but sequestration leaves questions marks,” said Brooks, whose headquarters is based in Hawaii. “We don’t know how exactly things will go.”
Brooks took charge in July 2013, when the Army elevated its Pacific headquarters from a three-star to a four-star command.
At the same time, the Army moved JBLM’s three-star I Corps headquarters under the Pacific Command. I Corps in turn took responsibility for oversight of troops in the 7th Infantry Division at JBLM and in the 25th Infantry Division in Alaska and Hawaii.
Those moves were intended to show that the Army was serious about putting more resources into the Pacific region as it came out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Brooks visited JBLM this week in part to connect with a Stryker brigade that just completed a three-month assignment in Southeast Asia.
It was called Pacific Pathways, and it asked a single Army unit to carry out exercises in three different nations. About 700 soldiers from JBLM’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division worked with partners in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan from August until early this month.
“When we take this type of approach, we get the benefit of a much closer exchange between our soldiers and foreign militaries, and we get a much deeper appreciation for the differences in the region,” Brooks said.
It cost about $18 million, which Brooks said was an efficient use of Army resources because it would have cost more to ship soldiers and equipment from three different units to three different countries.
Also, he said, the JBLM Stryker brigade was able to make good use of training opportunities on the ground. For instance, it did a year’s worth of training on unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We think we’ve found something here where the Army can increase its operations even under budgetary pressure while building readiness,” he said.
Brooks would like to do three Pacific Pathways exercises every year. The proposal has been criticized at times as unrealistic given the Army’s postwar drawdown and its involvement in more pressing crises, such as supporting the Iraqi government against Islamic State militants, turning back the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and sending more troops to Europe since Russian-backed separatists broke from Ukraine.
“For our global responsibilities, we’re too small as an Army and we’re getting smaller,” Brooks said. “There is a concern about the depth of our ability to respond to unforeseen crises.”
His concern is that the forced budget cuts would cut so many soldiers that the Pentagon would have to scale down the number of troops it has assigned to Army Pacific, limiting its ability to partner with allies or support humanitarian missions in Asia.
“There will still be a priority on the Pacific. I have no doubt about that,” he said. “but it may affect how many brigades are in the region and where they are assigned.”