New Strategy: New M2A2 and M3A3 Bradleys are loaded onto railcars at Pier 8 in Busan, South Korea. Equipment and troops will be redistributed through a complex logistics chain as the US 'pivots' to the Asia-Pacific. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — A year and a half after the Obama administration released its latest National Security Strategy calling for a “rebalancing” of US strategic focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, the broad outlines of what that shift may look like are coming into view.
What the military is discovering is that the shifting of troops and materiel across the globe, and then finding them homes, shelter and storage space, is complex and won’t come cheap.
To take one example for which some preliminary figures are available, it’s estimated that moving approximately 9,000 Marines from Okinawa and spreading them out to several other locations in the region, as plans call for, would cost about $12 billion, according to Defense Department figures.
The plan is to shift roughly 4,800 Marines to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii and 2,500 to Australia, with others coming back to the US mainland.
But a Government Accountability Office report published June 11 warns that the Pentagon “has not developed an integrated master plan for its current realignment plan, and it has not developed a strategy to support the development and oversight of the Japanese construction projects associated with other realignment initiatives.”
While the Marines continue to address that logistics dilemma, the Navy is well into the planning phase of positioning 60 percent of its ships to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. This includes not only adding a fourth forward-deployed submarine to Guam in 2015 and four littoral combat ships staged in Singapore, but also more maritime patrol aircraft and transferring Fire Scout UAVs and other electronic surveillance aircraft from Afghanistan.
The Navy also is shifting assets from Europe. It will base four destroyers in Rota, Spain, which will provide a ballistic-missile defense capability for Europe. That mission had been performed by a complement of 10 destroyers that rotated from the US to the Mediterranean, but six of those ships will be shifted to the Pacific.
The Air Force also will shift capacity from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, including B-1 bombers, MQ-9 Reapers, U-2 spy planes and Global Hawk UAVs.
For its part, the Army already has about 91,000 soldiers and civilians assigned to the Asia-Pacific, which man and support eight brigade combat teams, 12 batteries of Patriot missiles and other enablers.
An Army report released in early July that spells out its equipping priorities from 2013 to 2016 admits that due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “there is a significant portion of our gear that is in the wrong place for the future, given the adjustments to regionally aligned forces and redesigned units.”
The logistical challenges in getting that gear from the Middle East to the Pacific — or back to the United States — “will be one of the essential elements in our equipping guidance,” the paper said.
One large-scale money-saving project that the Army and Marines are working on is the divestiture of thousands of hulking mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles taking up parking spots in government depots.
The Army has said it will divest 13,000 MRAPs from its 21,000-vehicle fleet, putting about 4,000 of the blast-resistant vehicles in long-term storage and pre-positioned stocks, while keeping 4,000 in regular Army formations.
Likewise, the Marines have said they plan to retain about 1,200 MRAPs while they scrap or sell off about 2,680 others in the coming years.
The DoD has spent about $50 billion on buying and maintaining MRAPs since 2007.
This massive political and military rebalance effort comes as requirements from the Middle East are slowing down, but remain a key area of operations for US forces.
At an April 25 event focused on the Army’s role in the Pacific, the chief of staff for strategic plans and policy on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff offered an honest — if somewhat uncomfortable — assessment of the strategic landscape.
“We’ve been consumed by that arc of instability from Morocco to Pakistan for the last 10 years,” Rear Adm. Robert Thomas said. And while the senior staffs at the Pentagon are dutifully discussing how they are rebalancing to the Pacific, “I suspect, though, for the next five years, just as the last 10 years, we will have this constant pull into the” Middle East.
Over the next several years, he continued, “I think that you’re going to continue to talk about a rebalance to Asia, and you’re going to do some preparatory work in the environment, but the lion’s share of the emphasis will still be in that arc of instability.”
The needs of Central Command (CENTCOM) and Pacific Command (PACOM) are obviously different: While CENTCOM continues to deal with the political and social unrest caused by the Arab Spring, a bloodletting in Syria that is drawing in all manner of regional actors and an Iranian regime that continues to defy the international community with its nuclear program, PACOM is focusing on reviving atrophied military-to-military contacts while offering a host of advisory and humanitarian assistance to Asian allies.
Thomas offered a warning on this count as well. Competition for resources will stir in the halls of the Pentagon between the Pacific and Central commands, he said.
“If we think that this is going to be at all a clean break and not a competitive environment for forces between two very capable and influential COCOMs, we’re mistaken.”
Speaking at the same event, Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commanding general of the US Army’s I Corps, which has been aligned to the Asia-Pacific, said PACOM has already been assigned three Stryker brigades, two of which are based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
Highlighting the shift, Brown said that just three months after returning home from Afghanistan, the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division had already traveled to the Philippines for a training mission with Filipino forces for Joint Exercise Balikatan in April.
While Brown said the Army is working with allies in the region on counter-roadside bombs and intelligence-sharing capabilities, the most likely mission he envisions for US forces “is humanitarian assistance and disaster response — that’s the most likely thing we’ll respond to.”
While humanitarian missions in the Pacific area have traditionally been a Navy mission, Brown boasted of I Corps’ capability to assume some of the burden.
“I can have as few as a dozen folks on a plane within hours, or I can have five C-17s worth,” he said. “One of our huge advantages as I Corps is we’re extremely well located strategically, we have three deepwater ports” 12 miles away from Fort Lewis, as well as 52 C-17s.
Brown’s staff has been working on setting up joint task forces with military staffs in the region, which he said are focused on “enabling partner capacity,” as well as intelligence support “that we’re already providing.”
This jibes with what the Australian Army’s Maj. Gen. Rick Burr — who, in an unusual move, was named deputy commander of US Army Pacific in 2012 — told Defense News when he assumed command in February.
Burr also brought up the primacy of the logistics-heavy humanitarian mission, and the Army’s desire to play more of a role in assisting in disaster relief in the Pacific.
While “the potential for anything to happen at any time is very real, particularly with natural disasters … being prepared to respond to any crisis that could happen at short notice is clearly the most pressing issue at the moment.”
Now planners just have to figure out how to move all of these assets across the globe while automatic budget cuts outlined under the sequestration plan are beginning to take large bites out of DoD budgets.