WASHINGTON — The commander of US Army Pacific is working to preserve funding — while finding savings — for a series of yearly exercises that are designed to build partnerships and to project ready forces in the Asia Pacific region.
Pacific Pathways is a series of three annual exercises typically involving three other countries west of the international dateline as part of the operations and which defines Army presence as "more faces in more places with less bases," Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters today at a breakfast in Washington.
The exercises, which began in 2014, are a way of reconciling how to project forces in a time of amid shrinking resources as part of the Obama administration's mandate to pivot focus to the Pacific Rim.
Brooks said he is trying "to do this in a cost-informed way, where we actually leverage existing funds for exercises."
The effort is funded in the Army's five-year budget plan between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, Brooks saidnoted, adding, "we are asking to have that preserved."
Brooks said he believes he can conduct Pacific Pathways using about $38 million a year to cover three exercises at about $13 million a piece each.
Pacific Pathways funding in fiscals years 2014 and 2015 came from moving money within the command, Brooks explained.
"That was by cost avoidance and cost savings," he said, adding the cost savings are, in a way, inherent to how Pacific Pathways is organized and conducted.
For instance, normally a unit would fly to an exercise, conduct the exercise using specifically allotted funding allotted specifically for that and then fly home. Then, another unit would come in for a second exercise and, then, a third, repeating the process. But in designing Pacific Pathways, the Army consolidated transportation.
"The very first one was done with a commercial contracted vessel contracted by US Transportation Command," Brooks said, "and it moved all three, one vessel, one purchase, one time."
As Pacific Pathways continues, the process has generated more savings, he said, and has allowed the service to carry a much larger payload bringing equipment like Stryker vehicles and helicopters into exercises not previously included in the region.
In the second Pacific Pathways exercise, the Army used a US Navy ship to provide transportation to for the US Army while building readiness in its own fleet, according to Brooks said. The ship ended up carrying Army and US Marine Corps equipment to exercises being commonly conducted.
And as the Army moved troops into Korea, the ship hauled out munitions the service was trying to take out of the country, accomplishing about five or six missions with one vessel, Brooks said.
"This is how we are moving money around, — we are getting greater and greater leverage off of existing activity and building opportunities for other partners to generate readiness themselves that would already be committing dollars for readiness," Brooks said.
Cost savings have been discovered, in part, due to the nature of Pacific Pathways being a way for the Army to experiment and innovate.
"The experimentation is using these different methods of conveyance, using different configurations of the force, bringing in other concepts like, 'Are we going to sequentially move from one country to another, or area we going to move the division-level headquarters that controls these operations with them or should we keep them in one place and move units around them in a region? What if we project in a different direction?" Brooks asked.
Pacific Pathways has also helped find other training efficiencies, Brooks said. For example, unmanned aerial systems operators in brigade combat teams normally have to train for at least two years to operate their drones effectively and safely, he explained.
"In the case of our very first Pacific Pathways operation, all operators were certified within three months and accumulated the same amount of experience," Brooks said.
But there are still aspects of coordinating and running exercises with countries in the Asia Pacific that Brooks would like to see improved. Last month, he lamented that there's a lack of interoperability among militaries in the region.
"The technical interoperability is necessary where we try to encourage countries to procure or develop systems that can operate with ours technically, ideally the same systems, ideally American systems, and that has happened in some cases," Brooks said today. There is an initiative, he added, that does allow for technology transfer with several militaries in the region.
But it's not always a technical problem when it comes to strengthening interoperability, according to Brooks said.
During the first Pacific Pathways in Indonesia, Brooks said, both US and Indonesian forces happened to have the same FM radios: — the Harris AN/PRC-117G radio.
"Great, two countries working together got the same radio, — we can actually talk to each other," he recounted Brooks said. However, "we had a linguistic challenge at the other end of it, so even if the radios could talk to each other the people couldn't on the other end of it." Brooks said.
So some Indonesian forces who could speak English and some US forces who could speak Indonesian switched places in order to translate the communications, according to Brooks he said.
The Army is working on procedural interoperability with regional partners and "we also seek, where possible, to get policy limitations that might constrain our ability to work together relaxed when it's appropriate," Brooks said.
Another interoperability challenge is the lack of a greater alliance in the region like there is in Europe with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which makes it easier to share information.
"Frankly, there's still a deficit of trust in the Asia Pacific region among countries and so you don't know who your partners are going to be until an issue arises," Brooks said. So "the type of systems that are necessary for us to be able to receive any number of players and still have our networks protected, but still enable the partners that come out there, demands for some technological solutions." he added.
The Army is having conversations with industry and within the acquisition community to articulate what it is the command needs to improve interoperability, he said.
"We are trying to articulate the problem and find creative workarounds," Brooks said.