WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus pandemic began to ravage the globe, U.S. Army Pacific created Task Force Oceania, an effort to deploy two-person teams to island nations in the region to build relationships there.
“We wanted to figure out a way to bring forces, small forces, into the Pacific Island chains in Oceania that would meet the needs of those nations and be able to engage where, in some cases, there’s a military, in some cases there is not,” Col. Jay Bartholomees, who is in charge of training and resources at USARPAC, told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
The 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade commander has taken the lead on the effort and has started to send teams — consisting of a civil affairs officer and a noncommissioned officer from that region — to several island nations, with Palau being one of the first.
Most islands have strict precautions in place to be admitted into the population during the pandemic, Bartholomees said. To get teams out to their assigned locations, they were subjected to numerous COVID-19 tests and spent weeks in quarantine on their tiny assigned islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean before being induced into the population.
“They serve to be invaluable in connecting all the way up with the ambassador level, working with the whole of government, working through any of the key concerns that they have in potential civil affairs projects that can be supported in the region,” Bartholomees said.
In Palau, for example, the U.S. military helped build an airstrip and landed a C-130 as part of Defender Pacific 2020, an exercise designed to put the Army’s new operating concept to the test at a large scale. Yet, that exercise was scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The effort had immediate impact on the island, Bartholomees said, and “they served as a conduit with other joint forces as well as within the government to work in there.”
The teams, once all are in place, are expected to stay on the ground through Defender Pacific 2021 next summer.
“We’re trying to have that long lead very similar to Pacific Pathways that we had previously where we would engage in a region and push units through a series of bilateral exercises and remain in place and engaged in mil-to-mil,” Bartholomees said.
“This is a better fit design, similar to the [Security Force Assistance Brigade] SFAB, but even probably more precise in terms of small teams operating and working with host nation governance as well as with mil-to-mil where appropriate in order to support our national security policy in the region,” he added.
Defender Pacific 2020 included the Army’s first SFAB in the region — while it is the fifth SFAB to stand up out of the five planned for the active force. The unit deployed in small teams to Thailand and Indonesia all while working through coronavirus concerns and related restrictions.
Other bilateral exercises had to be scaled back as well as Pacific Pathways exercises.
Defender Pacific this year also highlighted the Army’s relationship with Guam and Palau. “We did multidomain operations and projected power into Palau onto the island of Angaur,” Bartholomees said. “We worked with the Marines and the Air Force to build, to refurbish an old World War II landing strip, landed a C-130 with a security force and then worked through multidomain operations using Army watercraft, so air and sea infiltration,” he added.
The Army also conducted a joint forcible entry operation in the north Pacific by departing out of Alaska and pushing one of the Army’s expeditionary strike packages out of Joint Base Lewis McChord, in Washington State, onto the island of Shemya in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
“It required some stretching in terms of joint force interoperability to air-land the force in there and establish positions,” Bartholomees said.
While the exercise had to be adjusted in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bartholomees said, it did sustain its complexity.
Defender Pacific 2021 will test the Army’s strategic deployment across all three components, particularly its joint logistics ability to project forces into the region, which was also tested in 2020. The scope and scale will increase next year, Bartholomees said, adding roughly 10 to 18 countries would likely participate, but he noted it is too early to say which countries would be involved in the exercise.
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.