WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army plans to expand its exercise series Pacific Pathways to reinforce the Oceania region in 2020, according to acting U.S. Army Pacific Commander Maj. Gen. John “Pete” Johnson.
Pacific Pathways began in 2014 and has supported training efforts that satisfy bilateral needs between the U.S. Army and its allies and partners in the region in roughly three rotations each year for about 10 months total.
In 2019, Pacific Pathways shifted from shorter rotations that involved more countries to longer visits that involve fewer countries as a way to improve bilateral relations. And participation has grown from a battalion-sized task force to roughly the size of a brigade.
“There are a lot of competing issues in Oceania,” Johnson said in a recent interview with Defense News just ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference. For example, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently severed ties with Taiwan, establishing new diplomatic relations with China in September. And as a number of islands in the region hot people of Chinese descent, the U.S. Army is seeking to counter China’s sphere of influence by strengthening its ties with key allies in the region and demonstrating its long history of partnership there, Johnson said.
The U.S. Army established a collaborative framework with Australia, New Zealand and France, and it plans to extend its presence across a wide range of Pacific island countries, including East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Tanga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, French Polynesia and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Next year, the service will establish a four- to five-month presence in those countries to “generate the same sort of purpose in the Philippines and Thailand” where the Army will also conduct a brigade-sized Pacific Pathways exercise in 2020, Johnson said. Exercises will take place from February to June in Thailand and then May to August in the Philippines.
But because of the nature and capacity of these tiny islands, “we can’t really send the kind of forces that we’re going to send to Thailand and the Philippines, so what we’re doing is we’re really calibrating to their very specific needs. And in some countries, they’ll be very small numbers — maybe 10, 15 soldiers, leaders, etc. — that are experts in certain fields to help build capacity and support their specific needs,” he said.
The Army will have a brigade in Australia and will “spoke off” from that brigade to New Caledonia as well, but the total number of soldiers that will participate in Pacific Pathways is still being worked out, according to Johnson.
The plan is to leverage civil affairs capabilities, he said, adding that “it’s going to be very useful in that environment to sort of build, especially as we initially open the doors; there’s going to be a lot of utility and civic action.”
The Army is also interested in establishing and improving lines of communications, not just for the service but for the Defense Department.
Some of the islands already have strong relationships with the U.S. stemming from World War II — particularly the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, which, while independent, have been part of a compact with the U.S.
In addition to economic arrangements, the U.S. has promised to defend the countries as if they were its own, and citizens from the island countries can serve in the U.S. armed forces, travel to the U.S. without visas and work without green cards.
While those relationships bind the U.S. to that part of Oceania, “I think there’s an operational context that speaks to lines of communication,” Johnson said.
The Army, across its Pacific Pathways efforts next year, also wants to reintegrate a multidomain operations task force, having done so earlier this year during Orient Shield in Japan.
“It was a great opportunity for us to operationalize some of the aspects that we’ve been studying with the multidomain task force in terms of how does it integrate in a theater construct and what are its potential roles as part of the joint force effort,” Johnson said. “So we’re going to be able to do that in the Philippines as well as in Thailand.”
The Army in the Pacific has operationalized a multidomain task force, which cut its teeth in the region a year ago, to help the service transition the Multi-Domain Operations concept to doctrine.
“I think we’ll be getting a second multidomain task force out in this region,” Johnson noted, “which shows the priority that the Army is placing on the region” and the utility of such a unit to conduct maneuver in an archipelagic region “where you can’t move by ground, you can’t just deploy a large force to ground and then maneuver from that point of departure. Here, maneuvering in partnership with air and maritime is going to be essential to creating option for the joint force commander.
“I think we are going to continue to explore better ways to do that.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.