US Air Force Gen. Herbert 'Hawk' Carlisle (Mike Morones/Staff)
Over the past several years, the administration of President Barack Obama has promised to change focus from the Middle East and rebalance, or pivot, toward the Pacific. Just how successful the administration has been at that is a subject for debate, but top Pentagon officials are quick to bring up the Pacific when discussing long-term plans — or short-term budget fights. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, talked with Defense News twice in January regarding the Pacific and how US interests are developing in the region.
Q. With the pivot to Asia, are we committing resources to the region?
A. I would say that the resources have not followed the comment of rebalance into the Pacific for a couple of reasons. One, because we still have ongoing operations obviously in the Middle East. And the other reason is [because] sequestration and the cuts in defense make it actually incredibly hard to find places to pivot money to the Pacific. One term that was used colloquially is “even is the new up.” In other words, if you do not lose any money, you are actually gaining some. So I think with respect to the Pacific, in some ways, we were protected a little bit during sequestration. We had operations and maintenance funded more than other folks. But to say that there is a swing of resources — it is just left to the decline and the rest of other areas that are in a decline because of reduced defense budget. And we actually got a little relief in ’14 and less, but a little, relief in ’15. But if sequestration sets in again as it is projected to in ’16 and out, then I think that rebalance in the Pacific resourcewise will become even more challenging.
Q. Have allies expressed concerns over the US budget situation?
A. Yeah, they definitely have. At the end of the year, when sequestration took effect, we had to start canceling exercises. We had an air chiefs conference we had to postpone. We have rescheduled it. Again, last year we had to cancel some exercises. That was incredibly concerning amongst our friends, partners and allies. If there is any angst out here, it is the budget situation we are facing; the rebalance of the Pacific; and if, given the fiscal constraints that the US has, if we are going to be able to follow through on that.
I think all of our partners acknowledge that we are trying to do that. The US and the administration certainly do understand the importance of it. And we are looking for every possible way that we can do it. But I think there is some concern in many nations of how well we are going to be able to do that given the fiscal constraints we are under.
Q. How are you developing a strategy to deal with China’s growing intermediate-range missile threat?
A. One of our main lines of operations, one of our main objectives, is integrated air and missile defense, and that is our ability to defend against missile arsenals. The three largest missile arsenals in the world are Russia, China and North Korea. And a good portion of all those missiles are pointed at us or our friends and allies. So our ability to defend against medium-range, intermediate-range cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles is paramount, and my role is the area air defense commander for pick up.
There are three different pillars for [integrated air missile defense]. There is the reactive one that eventually would take out the launchers before they shot at you, or attack operations where you try to take them down [prior] to launch. We are also looking at new capabilities that we could put on our air bases and our ships, for that matter, to defend against inbound missiles. And there is some new technology out there that we are working very hard to bring to the force. The third pillar of integrated air missile defense is passive defense — things like hardening some of your hangars. It is the ability to have fuel bladders dispersed in different places so they do not know where they are. If they do know where they are, there are so many different targets they would not know how or which ones to hit.
Q. How integrated are those plans with our allies in the region and with our naval forces?
A. Within the joint force, very integrated. Under [US Pacific Command commander] Adm. [Samuel] Locklear, the Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Coast Guard components are incredibly integrated. We are getting better and better with our allies. For example, the Japanese have Patriots as well, so how [do] we integrate with them in a bilateral air defense plan? [South] Korea is the same way. They have Patriots there. So we work very closely on how we are going to integrate with those two. Other areas, we are continuing to expand those. Obviously, the Philippines is one that we are working with. They are farther behind, so they have a little bit more to do to bring themselves up. As we move to Southeast Asia and South Asia, we are still growing that capability there.
Q. Some regional allies have bilateral agreements with the US but not with each other. How do you handle that?
A. We’re making some in-roads. To be perfectly frank, I think on the military side it’s probably they’re more open, and as long as they can do things that are not terribly visible, the military’s tried to do as much working together with the United States. On the domestic side, some of the historical context that still resides between Japan and Korea and of course, certain recent events in Japan that have kind of raised the angst of the Koreans. I think those things inhibit our ability to do more together. We are working diligently. When we work with those militaries, we talk about the value of trilateral engagements. We talk about the value of interoperability. We talk about the value of information sharing. It’s nothing that’s going to happen quickly. The domestic audience has become very important to both those countries, Korea and Japan. And so sometimes we’ll make a couple steps forward, but we’ll end up one-step back because of something that happened in one of those countries.
Q. Are there enough strategy discussions going on to try to anticipate what China, North Korea or Russia might do in the region?
A. We have many, many of those strategy discussions within the joint force under Adm. Locklear and his family of plans that he has developed. And it is very much a holistic approach from Phase 0 through any kind of crisis, up into how we would respond and what kind of plans we would execute. So clearly under [Pacific Command], we are very much engaged in that.
The strategy discussions with our allies and partners are a little bit more difficult, and some of it is the historical context between the allies and partners is not always good. So sometimes in those discussions, they are kind of tiered. I would say that probably the highest level is with our Australian friends. I think the next, very closely, would be with Japan and Korea because of the resident forces, the plans, the treaty alliances we have there. And then we work with other nations. Obviously, we have treaties with the Philippines and Thailand as well. So the dialogue is going on there. Some of the other nations, we are still working our way through that.
But the thing for the United States [is that] we have to keep in mind every single one of these nations has a bilateral relationship with China. They have a trade with China. They have an economic relationship with China and cultural [ties] in many cases. So when we have the discussions, we have to have it in light of how those nations see China and how they have interactions with China. It requires a lot of discussion on what we can do in peace time to better relationships.
Q. Is there a regular exchange of information between our forces in the Pacific and Chinese forces?
A. I would not call them regular. We are trying hard for mil-to-mil [military-to-military] relationships, and since [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] and President Obama have had their two summits, we are trying to open that more and more. In the past, it has not been. In the past, [China] would continue trade, continue cultural, educational, treasury engagements with the United States. But if something happened, like if we sold arms to Taiwan or something else happened, the first thing that they would stop would be mil-to-mil engagements.
We are trying to get past that, and I think President Xi is trying to do that as well. I am trying to go there again for their air show in the fall, if I can, and perhaps bring a C-17 with me. We are still trying to arrange that. [Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Fleet] has invited them to participate in [Rim of the Pacific exercise] this summer, and they have accepted. That is the first time for that.
So we are trying to open up those lines of communication. I am trying to get one of their senior officers to come out here on a counterpart visit with me. I will see them at the Singapore Airshow and have a chance to talk to them. We are better than we were a year ago, but we have got a long ways to go.
Q. What are your thoughts about China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ)?
A. Nations have a right [to an ADIZ]. We have them, Japan has them, Korea has them, other nations have them. But they need to be done in accordance with international norms, international rules and laws, and consultation with nations that are in close proximity. It was done totally without consultation or talking to anybody about how it was going to be, how big it was going to be, where it was going to overlap or not overlap, or where it was going to run next to the other ADIZs. There was no consultation. It was just, “here it is.” And then the second thing is never really explaining what it means. They sound ominous. It’s not the right language. ■
By Aaron Mehta in Washington.