WASHINGTON — The U.S. military exercise Defender Pacific is getting a makeover in hopes the event will improve joint targeting capabilities and concepts over the next few years.
The exercise will now be known as Operation Pathways, building on an Army-led drill known as Pacific Pathways, according to the head of U.S. Army Pacific Command.
“One of the things we’re trying to work on here is create opportunities to do joint targeting across all the services in all the domains because the future operating environment is going to require us to have a better understanding of the joint force, the adversary and then integration of those joint targeting elements,” Gen. Charles Flynn told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
Figuring out how joint targeting for fires will work across all branches — especially as new long-range fires are expected to come online as early as fiscal 2023 — will benefit the armed services as they continue to refine war-fighting concepts, Flynn said. Those concepts include the Army’s Multidomain Operations, the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations, the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.
Modifying Defender Pacific will “create opportunities to pull together the future operating concepts of all the services in the region,” Flynn said. “This region is ... a war-fighting laboratory for us to learn, discover, grow, succeed and create a number of new opportunities for the joint force by implementing some new approaches.”
Pacific Pathways — which focuses on fostering relationship-building efforts between the U.S. Army and regional nations — was considered separate from Defender Pacific, which was meant to be a larger exercise in 2020 and 2021.
But both years Defender Pacific’s original division-sized exercise was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, Flynn said. Defender Europe, which was supposed to have its inaugural launch in 2020 as well, was also scaled back.
Defender Pacific is becoming Operation Pathways because “we’re trying to draw a distinction that Defender is in Europe and Pathways is in the Pacific,” Flynn said, arguing the word “defender” conjures up former European exercises like Reforger.
“We’re going to use the Pathways label out here because what we’re trying to do is absolutely that: create pathways and openings between us, our allies and partners in the region,” Flynn said.
Flynn’s experience with Pacific Pathways began in 2014, during the inaugural exercise, when he was commander of the 25th Infantry Division. When Pacific Pathways first began, he said, it usually consisted of three small exercises, tied together for about three or four months.
Pathways in 2021 was extended to roughly five months and combined major exercises in Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and the Philippines as well as other exercises in a series of smaller countries, Flynn said. While the plan was to have roughly 20,000 soldiers in theater, the pandemic caused the Army to scale down to about 8,000 to 10,000, he noted.
The service also held a series of experiments called Forager, which was planned with Army Futures Command and brought into the Pathways exercise. Forager featured more than 100 experiments, primarily executed from the second island chain into the first island chain as well as into Asia, Flynn said.
The first island chain runs parallel to the mainland of the Asian continent, starting in the Kuril Islands, through the Japanese Archipelago; includes Taiwan and the northwestern portion of the Philippines; and finishes in Borneo. The second island chain runs parallel to the first farther out to sea and includes Japan’s Bonin Islands and Volcano Islands; the Mariana Islands, including Guam; the Western Caroline Islands; and extends to Western New Guinea.
Other services simultaneously conducted their own experiments, he added.
“The joint integration part of it,” he explained, is “an expression of what the [defense] secretary calls integrated deterrence; by having that capability forward and operating in the environment and in the conditions that we’re most likely to have to respond to [a] crisis in, most likely to have to respond to [a] conflict in, we have to be competing every day out there.”
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.