Pacific Command Strategy Hinges on Military Engagement
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii, Feb. 21, 2008 Military preeminence and strategic cooperation are at the heart of every action taken by U.S. Pacific Command, the chief of America’s largest combatant command said here yesterday.
The command’s scope is just one aspect, Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating said. PACOM’s area of responsibility includes the two largest countries in the world -- China and India -- as well as established regional powers, growing nations, struggling states and the overarching threat of transnational terrorism in the area, he said. PACOM is a maritime command, but its area includes five of the world’s largest standing armies.
“We try to emphasize two things in everything we do: military preeminence and strategic cooperation,” Keating said during an interview in his office overlooking Pearl Harbor. “Our job as a United States combat command is to protect the United States of America from attack and our allies and partners, of which we have many in this region.”
The U.S. military must be strong enough to deter aggressors and, if attacked, able to defeat any enemy quickly. But the lesson of the region is that you don’t have to be a shooter to be effective, the admiral said.
“Everywhere we go -- to one degree or another, but unmistakable nonetheless -- is the theme that those countries want us in some way, shape or form to be nearby, to be associated, to be close, to help,” Keating said.
They want to have the phone number to call in case of a tsunami in Indonesia or a Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, he said. Responding to natural or manmade disasters is a mission of the command.
“If we can keep those folks in the frame of mind that the United States is here -- we are the indispensable element to ensure they know they can trust us and we can trust them -- the likelihood of kinetic military activity is much, much lower,” he said.
And it has been working; guns in the Pacific are quiet for now, but there are concerns. Terrorist activity still plagues the southern Philippines. The military dictatorship in Burma remains a concern. The command watches developments in North Korea very carefully. There is tension between the Peoples’ Republic of China and Taiwan.
“We think it’s being monitored carefully and managed delicately,” Keating said.
But while there are no shooting wars in the region, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Defense Department civilians in the region are busy.
“There are many exercises, exchanges and programs being conducted that will strengthen the sense of trust we are trying to nurture,” the admiral said.
Actions in U.S. Central Command obviously affect readiness of U.S. military forces worldwide. “The readiness of our forces in the Pacific is affected by combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Keating said. “But every day I report to the secretary of defense that we are ready to execute the plans that he expects of us.”
Since the war on terror began, the command has had to assume a bit more risk and change contingency plans. “We’ve had to adjust them a little bit because of the 30,000 Marines and soldiers who are ordinarily in our (area), but are not (now),” he said. “We are at a higher risk state than we would be if there were no military operations in the Central Command, but we can execute the plans that are on the shelf.”
Keating said he always is asked when he testifies before Congress what keeps him awake at night. “The answer is, ‘Nothing does,’” he said.
Exercises and military-to-military contacts are the building blocks of the command’s strategic partnership program.
“Last summer in the Bay of Bengal, two U.S. aircraft carriers, an Indian aircraft carrier and ships from Singapore, Australia and Japan participated in a 10-day multilateral, multiservice exercise, … and we were able to communicate on a classified system in real time,” Keating said. “That’s a profound development.”
Keating noted he was previously assigned to the command in 1985. “The notion of getting those five countries together in a maritime exercise (then) was a nonstarter,” he said. “And now it happens as a matter of course.”
More than 8,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are in the Philippines providing medical and engineering assistance throughout the southern Philippines. Terrorism is a danger in the country, but U.S. servicemembers are helping the Filipinos develop their capabilities.
“There are a wide variety of very effective nonshooting activities in which our men and women in uniform are involved,” Keating said, adding that there are a number of bilateral and multilateral exercises, including the biggie: Cobra Gold in Thailand. At least half a dozen countries will send troops and equipment for Cobra Gold, and many more will send military observers.
Participating in these exercises has a long-range payoff, too. “Having had the luxury of participating in a bunch of these things since I was an ensign, you can move around the world and look up someone and say, ‘Hey, how are you? How are things going?’” Keating said. “It goes back to that trust and confidence we are looking to not just build, but to nurture.”
He said developing that type of trust with the region’s largest nation has been somewhat troublesome.
“We are having a little bit of trouble engendering that trust and confidence with the People’s Liberation Army in China,” Keating acknowledged.
Keating said he can get in touch with senior Chinese military officials, but he must work through the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and that delays the process.
He can make those calls to other military leaders in the region, he said. “It is an on-the-spot, real-time way of at least reducing misunderstanding,” Keating said. “If misunderstanding festers, it can lead to confusion and then crisis, and then even conflict.”
Keating indicated that he is hopeful that communication with China will improve and that military-to-military contacts will continue to grow in scope and importance. “We are engaging with all of these countries in exercises, personnel exchanges at the senior NCO through the four-star level,” he said. “(These are) a significant benefit to us, and we need to tell the American people.”
Countries of the region are responding to U.S. engagement. The Indonesians are getting better at counterterrorism; the Malaysians are getting better at preventing piracy, “and it’s not just because they are hanging with the United States,” Keating said.
The Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean forces are working together better in providing increased security in the Straits of Malacca, a strategic choke point through which 90 percent of Asia’s oil flows.
“Enhanced maritime security, enhanced awareness, information sharing, intelligence gathering -- all of those factors combine to make a more secure Straits of Malacca, and that transfers throughout the region as it all fits together,” Keating said.
One of the more successful U.S. efforts in the region was sending the USS Peleliu on a six-month cruise throughout the region. The amphibious assault ship had no Marines on it, but was filled with medical personnel from military and civilian agencies, he said, and it traveled the region providing medical care to all who needed it.
Keating visited the ship during its cruise. He met a 23-year-old Filipina mother whose 3-year-old child will live because of the care he received. The hospital ship the USNS Mercy will make a similar cruise in the region this year, the admiral said.
“When they see the military uniforms, we want them to know they can count on the United States of America to be there with the military power that we represent, but we don’t want to use it,” he said.