HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Army’s major exercise in the Indo-Pacific theater in fiscal 2020 will focus on a South China Sea scenario, Gen. Robert Brown, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, told Defense News in a March 26 interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium.
The service is funding two major exercises in FY20: one in the Pacific and one in Europe.
The exercise is fueled by a rising China, characterized in the National Defense Strategy as a long-term, strategic competitor of the United States. The NDS lays out a world where great power competition rather than counterterrorism will drive the Defense Department’s decision-making and force structure.
While the U.S. Army has 85,000 permanently stationed troops in the Indo-Pacific region and is already conducting exercises such as Pacific Pathways with allies and partners, the service is aiming to practice rapid deployment from the continental United States to the Pacific.
The plan is to bring over a division headquarters and several brigades over the course of a 30- to 45-day period along with their enablers, Brown said.
“They will get the challenge of coming to the Pacific with the Pacific-assigned forces already there,” he said, “and we won’t go to Korea, we will actually go to a South China Sea scenario where we will be around the South China Sea; and another scenario we can do that is the East China Sea.”
The exercise will consist of many things the Army has not practiced at such a large scale, Brown said. Forces will be in countries like the Philippines and Thailand, and they will likely work with other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
The South China Sea has been a hotbed of contention for several years. China has laid claim to the area, building artificial islands in disputed waters with military facilities on them, with the country claiming it has the authority to restrict international navigation.
The “Defender Pacific” exercise is expected to be complex and have a joint and multinational focus, Brown emphasized.
Meanwhile, the service is also expanding its Pacific Pathways exercises conducted throughout the calendar year for roughly five years. The plan is to extend the time Army units are in countries, which translates to going to fewer places.
Brown said the Army realized staying longer would benefit both the host nation in developing the local military and U.S. units so they can learn complex skills in unique training environments.
The Army recently wrapped up Pacific Pathways exercises in Thailand and the Philippines, spending more than three months in Thailand and four months in the Philippines, as opposed to just several weeks, Brown said.
Thailand wanted to work with the U.S. Army because it plans to buy Stryker combat vehicles, so a Stryker unit was deployed there to help the local military get acquainted with the system. The U.S. Army unit in turn learned how to better employ the vehicle in the complex terrain of Thailand. Thailand should receive Strykers in the fall, Brown noted.
The Army also traveled to the Philippines to help the government develop brigade combat teams, he said. The Philippines are forming BCTs to respond more quickly to a crisis after experiencing a “long, terrible struggle” following the Islamic State group’s takeover of the city of Marawi. ISIS dug into the city before the Filipino army could respond, which led to a five-month-long conflict in 2017, according to Brown.
“Every country in the Pacific wants a ‘Pathways’ except North Korea, I haven’t heard from them, and China,” Brown joked.
The service is actually talking to India about spending more time in the country with a larger number of troops — expanding from roughly just a few hundred up to 2,500 for a duration of up to six months — which “gives us a presence in the region longer as well without being permanently there,” Brown said.
He noted that just because units are staying in fewer countries for longer doesn’t mean they aren’t gaining experience in other places. In many cases, smaller units break off and deploy to countries to participate in exercises or other training events.
The Army will send companies to Palau and Fiji, for example, Brown said.
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.