WASHINGTON — Amid North Korea’s nuclear and missile projects and China’s growing influence in the region, the head of U.S. Army Pacific Command, Gen. Robert Brown, has refocused the organizations mission to focus on defining critical doctrine and fostering stronger relationships with allies and partners.
The Indo-Pacific region has become ground zero for developing the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Operations, or MDO, concept, which is meant to serve as its capstone war-fighting doctrine in the years to come.
U.S. Army Pacific Command recently hosted a pilot program of the service’s MDO task force, essentially designed to test the future doctrine. Brown has been particularly well-suited to command USARPAC as it helps develop the doctrine, having previously led the Army’s Combined Arms Center, where doctrine is applied to training and operations.
As he continues to reshape how exercises are conducted in the Pacific, Defense News sat down with the four-star at the Association of the U.S. Army’s recent annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The Army has spearheaded some multidomain operations experimentation through the Multi-Domain Operations Task Force, but what are other priorities you have coming this year?
[Multi-Domain Operations] is a key priority. As you look, multidomain operations are clearly the future. We don’t have dominance in any one domain anymore, and the way adversaries have been preparing to compete against us, we require really an evolutionary process of multidomain that has revolutionary impacts.
But some of the other key things: Readiness remains the No. 1 priority — has to be, of course. We’re in the Pacific. We still have to be ready for any threat that’s out there, and while the diplomatic effort is the lead with North Korea, and we certainly hope that works out, we have to be ready in case it doesn’t.
And then there’s really a hypercompetition across the Pacific that’s occurring. So we’re really working hard to maintain the international rules-based order.
The Army conducts Pacific Pathways, an exercise that takes place every year with multinational partners. How is the service evolving this exercise?
It’s been going on about six years now. We’re adjusting it this year slightly; well, actually it’s a pretty significant adjustment. Before, really, we would go to four or five countries and show how we could deploy and be tailorable, scalable, really help build our readiness. You can talk about going somewhere rapidly, but unless you do it the way you would if you had to in a conflict, you aren’t going to be any good at it. You’ve got to practice it.
But now what we’re doing is instead of four or five countries and staying a few weeks in each, we’re going to go and stay longer. I call it Pacific Pathways 2.0, where we’ll go and stay up to four, maybe even up to six months, in a country. So we’ll go to fewer countries but stay longer, and then from there, we’ll still do some hub and spoke to smaller countries and other venues.
But it’s pretty exciting because it will really help build those alliances and partnerships. You can think it’ll help build our readiness, of course, but if you’re in a country four months working together, you’re going to really build relationships that will be key if there’s a crisis out there.
And it’s in countries where we’ve done Pacific Pathways already. Now, we have to work with those countries to shape the ability to stay longer. Most of them are very excited about that because, again, we’re not going to do anything alone. We’re going to do it with our multinational allies and partners, and that’s the trend in the world. It would be foolish to do something alone. And so they’re very excited about it. But it’s countries like Japan, [South] Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and then eventually, I think, Vietnam. But we’ve still got to work through that until we’re doing more and more with Vietnam. So all those countries, except Vietnam, we’ve done Pacific Pathways before, and we’ll work to stay longer.
What else is brewing for U.S. Army Pacific Command in relation to this effort?
The other thing that we’ll do is put a U.S. Army brigade at the highest state of readiness west of the international dateline 10 months out of the year. So that gives the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific Command] commander some very good options. He has forces that are at the highest state of readiness working with allies that can do disaster response; non-command evacuation operation; or, God forbid, conflict. He’s got those forces there, or as a flexible deterrent option, as well, to prevent conflict.
Then the last part of it for Pacific Pathways … the most exciting part of it, I think, is next year, 2019, we’ll actually have a multidomain task force, a brand-new concept that we’re moving towards doctrine, that will be operating in all domains and will be in the Pacific in Pacific Pathways. It’ll be in Orient Shield, the exercise in Japan. And we’ll actually have a multidomain task force for the first time ever. We’ve had portions of it in exercises, but we’ve never really deployed it the way we would for real. And this’ll be the first time we’ll do that. So it’s a very exciting time, lots going on, and very important because the multidomain concept applies across the globe. It’s not just the Pacific. You would need it across the entire globe in any conflict or any region.
Why is it important to have Pacific Pathways units embedded in countries for a longer period of time? I imagine you’re not going this coming year to all of those countries you listed. Where will you start?
The reason we want to stay longer, it’s all about relationships. You don't want to form a relationship in a crisis. So if you’re in a country longer, you can learn from each other no matter what country you’re in. Our forces learn from the other forces. They learn from us. And you really learn to fight together as a cohesive team, and you learn to operate together. And it’s not easy.
Many times there are language barriers. There’s technology barriers. There’s all these. So when you’re there for a couple of weeks, it’s tough to get into really complex issues. You hit the surface. When you’re there for four months, you’re going to get into all the issues, and you’re really going to work them out, have time to work them out and really be able to work together. And what’ll happen is our readiness will go up in our units, and their readiness will go up. And then our interoperability will improve. So therefore, you’re building those great alliances.
And by the way, in the Pacific ... we have seven alliances in the world. Five of them are in the Pacific with Japan, [South] Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Australia. And so that’s really key. Those alliances are the highest priority. And then, of course, other partners, friends that you want to work with and develop those so maybe they become alliances.
When folks see that type of relationship, they’re less likely to do something that would harm or take away freedom of navigation, freedom of movement, or hurt the free and open Indo-Pacific.
The Trump administration is working to improve relations with North Korea, going so far as to stop some exercises in South Korea. Gen. Robert Abrams, during his confirmation hearing to become the U.S. Forces Korea commander, said the lack of training there affects readiness. What is the Army doing to offset that?
Exercises are very important. Obviously you can talk about working together, but until you get together and you sort out the many challenges of ... the world’s so complex. How do you get your systems to talk to each other? How do you ensure that you can work together in a way that you don’t go against each other but you both get better from it? And so you need exercise. If you don’t exercise, it’s kind of like preparing a team to go to the Super Bowl and you never practice or you never play a game. That wouldn’t be very good. You want to play against the best competition. You want to work together so you’re a well-organized, well-knit, close-cut team, and that’s what we need.
And the good news is the challenges with North Korea over the past couple years, I have never seen in my 30-plus years working with [South] Korea, with the ROK [Republic of Korea], I’ve never seen the alliance more rock solid because when you get these challenges, it causes you to get closer together. And so it’s a rock solid alliance.
But what we’re doing is we’re continuing to do higher level. ... Battalion and below exercises on the peninsula is fine. And that’s working very well at that small unit level. And then above that, we’re doing the higher-level exercises off the peninsula. We just did some in Hawaii, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Washington state; even Alaska we worked some scenarios, and we invite the ROKs to that. Obviously, not as many can come. It’s not as good as doing an exercise there in [South] Korea, but it’s certainly better than not doing it at all, that’s for sure.
So it does have an impact. I would say exercises are very, very important, and they really help preserve the peace because when you’re working together, it’s a real deterrent when folks see. That’s pretty powerful when you can work very well together. I think that had a lot to do with them [North Korea] coming to the negotiating table. They see the close relationship and realize: “Why would we want to fight against those guys? We’d lose. There’s no doubt about it."
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.