Hundreds of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers are hopping to three East Asia island nations this summer and fall for a newly packaged series of exercises meant to test how the Army can build up its presence in the Pacific.
The assignment, called Pacific Pathways, builds on two years of work shifting the Army’s focus at JBLM from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back to its traditional emphasis on collaborating with Asian allies on shared security endeavors.
“We’re beyond the rebalancing,” said I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, referring to the Obama administration’s 2012 plan to “pivot” the Pentagon’s focus from the wars to emerging threats in Asia. “We’re building on our investment in the Pacific.”
The first wave of about 200 Pacific Pathways soldiers hit the ground in Indonesia last week. Another set of 350 is on its way to Malaysia. Both of the groups from the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division plan to meet in November in Japan for a larger exercise.
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Already, local soldiers have been publishing photos of themselves carrying enormous Indonesian snakes and sharing stories about learning how to work in a tropical environment with their Indonesian peers. It’s a big change for a Stryker brigade that fought in the rugged deserts of Afghanistan less than two years ago.
“They showed us that almost every leaf out here is edible,” Spc. Antonio Garcia told an Army writer in Indonesia last week.
Meanwhile, the base’s top Army headquarters recently performed complex drills mimicking all-out war in North Korea. The I Corps is working on another exercise preparing for crises that might erupt in the Sea of Japan in December.
And, an annual exercise drawing Japanese ground troops to Washington state has grown to such an extent that Japan for the first time in 21 years sent a three-star general to observe military-to-military drills between his troops and JBLM Stryker soldiers.
Some critics say Pacific Pathways is an unnecessary move by the Army into territory that is already well-handled by the U.S. Marine Corps. Some say it’s a distraction from crises in other parts of the world.
Lanza doesn’t see it that way.
“We always know that the world is very unstable, the world is very complex, and the Army — your Army — will have to be ready for whatever the nation asks us to do,” he told a gathering of South Sound political and business leaders in June.
‘TYRANNY OF DISTANCE’
At JBLM, the buzzwords are “prevent, shape and win.” It’s Lanza’s way of explaining that the U.S. first wants to prevent armed conflicts from developing, then shape them by working with allies if war breaks out, and finally be prepared to win if U.S. forces are compelled to intervene.
The Army has been planning the 2nd Brigade’s Pacific Pathways mission for more than a year. Commanders wanted a platform to send soldiers and equipment to Pacific allies for extended periods of time, giving them a way to nurture ties with foreign armies or respond to disasters.
The idea was to cut into the “tyranny of distance” that separates Army bases in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington from U.S. allies in East Asia, Army Pacific Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks told The Washington Post in 2013.
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“Forces that are already in motion have an advantage in responding,” Brooks said.
Brooks’ plan has drawn scrutiny since it was announced in 2013. The Washington Post cast it as an Army turf war with Marine forces that are already tailored to Pacific operations.
Others have questioned how the Army could maintain a robust Pacific presence while carrying out a postwar drawdown, continuing to fight in Afghanistan and maintaining forces for uncertainty in Iraq and Eastern Europe.
“What does the nation really need?” asked Marine officer Aaron Marx in a January 2014 blistering critique of Pacific Pathways published by the Brookings Institution. “Certainly not another Marine Corps. The United States Army is the best in the world at what it does, but this concept commits significant resources to duplicate what the USMC already does, with a lighter footprint and more capability and training.”
Top brass at the Pentagon have insisted there’s more than enough work to go around for all service branches in the region.
“You could put all the soldiers, all the airmen, all the sailors, all the Marines out there and we still wouldn’t cover it,” Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told a Surface Navy Association symposium in January.
MUTUAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE
So far the Pacific Pathways mission mostly resembles a reorganization of traditional Army exercises that have been occurring for years.
In Indonesia this month, for instance, Stryker soldiers from the 2nd Brigade are participating in an exercise that took place last year with paratroopers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The difference is that JBLM soldiers won’t go home immediately after their mission in Indonesia. Instead, they’ll continue on with another assignment in the Pacific, giving them an experience that resembles a short overseas deployment to multiple countries.
“When we were selected to do this, we treated it as a deployment, not necessarily an exercise,” said 2nd Brigade Commander Col. Lou Zeisman in a phone interview from Indonesia.
Zeisman set up a rear detachment to watch over troops who stayed at JBLM and to keep families informed about the brigade’s movements. The brigade has been preparing with month-long exercises at the Yakima Training Center and at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.
He said the exercises would give his soldiers a good opportunity to learn how to fight in vastly different environments. Today, they’re sweating in jungle weather and working out of tents. When they get to Japan, his soldiers will have to work in cold, wintry weather.
“We are learning just as much from our partners as they are from us. They understand this environment, and our soldiers are excited to learn from them,” Zeisman said.
He took parts of two infantry battalions to the Pathways exercises, as well as his brigade headquarters staff.
The brigade brought its 20-ton Stryker vehicles on the mission, sending them by ship to Indonesia and Malaysia. After the first exercises are complete, the Army will send the Strykers on to Japan.
JBLM and Indonesian troops mostly are working on foot in the jungle. They’re building toward a large drill that will include live weapons, Strykers and U.S. attack helicopters working together against a shared target.
“It’s going to demonstrate that two forces can operate together in a combined environment,” Zeisman said.
Lanza said the Army would tailor future Pacific Pathways missions to the security goals of host governments. The I Corps headquarters has been stepping up its work in the Pacific for more than a year, sending soldiers to Australia, Mongolia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.