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Willard Looks to Partnerships in Pacific

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2009 – Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard made his Hollywood debut as the Soviet MiG pilot who challenged Tom Cruise’s character – known by the call sign “Maverick” – to an exhilarating dogfight before meeting his demise in the 1986 “Top Gun” blockbuster.

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Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard and Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating depart at the conclusion of the U.S. Pacific Command change-of-command ceremony, Oct. 19, 2001. Willard relieved Keating at the ceremony, taking charge of the Defense Department's largest geographical area of command. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

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While serving as operations and executive officer at the Navy’s “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School at the time, Willard was aerial coordinator for the movie. That got him a short, but pivotal, on-screen appearance as the pilot of an F-14 fighter jet painted black and embellished for the movie with a MiG-style fin flash on its tail.

“I kept looking back over my shoulder, and another missile was on its way,” Willard recalled of the dogfight scene in which he ultimately was shot down. “It was very exciting.”

More than two decades later, in his new role as the top U.S. officer in the Pacific, Willard doesn’t have the luxury of being able to fixate on a single, Warsaw Pact-type threat. His vast region of responsibility, which stretches across half the world’s surface and includes half its population in 36 countries, enjoys a relative peace. But its tensions, like its volatile geology, are bubbling just at or slightly below the surface.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs and China’s military buildup and lack of transparency loom large. Terrorist activity threatens Indonesia, the Philippines and most recently, India. Other challenges range from piracy to the proliferation of technology for weapons of mass destruction.

Willard sat down with reporters last week in Seoul, South Korea, just two days after assuming command, to discuss these and other challenges and his vision for U.S. Pacific Command.

“I love this region of the world,” he said. “The Asia-Pacific region, to me, is extremely complex [and] has a great history associated with it.”

As he spoke, Willard had yet to set foot into his new headquarters office at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, perched on a mountain with a majestic view of Pearl Harbor. After consultative sessions in South Korea last week and an off-site defense chiefs conference in Hawaii this week, Willard said, he was looking forward to getting settled into his new office and getting down to business with his new staff.

North Korea is high on his priority list.

“A nuclear-armed North Korea, and a North Korea that chooses to provoke and … may be on the brink of succession – all those things make North Korea worthy of our attention now,” he said. “North Korea needs to be watched very closely.”

Meanwhile, China is expanding its military might at “an unprecedented rate,” Willard said, exceeding U.S. intelligence estimates every year for the past decade. Equally troubling, China also has obtained “asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region,” including anti-access capabilities, ballistic missiles and sophisticated weaponry.

And even the historically rock-solid alliance with Japan is demanding more attention these days, as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s new government reassesses security agreements made by previous administrations.

Willard told reporters he’s intent on strengthening the five U.S. alliances in the region and bringing new partners, including China, into the fold.

China abruptly halted all military-to-military engagement when the United States announced arms sales to Taiwan in October 2008. But now that China has demonstrated a willingness to re-engage, Willard wants to increase the interface and take the relationship to a new level.

“China is not our enemy,” he said. “We look forward to a constructive relationship with China and their constructive contribution to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.”

Willard said he’ll work to promote more multilateralism in a region that historically has been characterized by bilateral relationships with the United States. “Ten years ago, the Asia-Pacific was, by and large, a place where … countries were very comfortable talking one-on-one with the United States or with other partners, but rarely together,” he said.

Although that’s been improving, Willard said, current challenges facing the region demand even closer cooperation. He pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the power of like-minded nations engaging together, as valuable lessons for the Pacific.

“We are looking for as many partners … as we can find in the region,” he said.

As he takes on these challenges, Willard brings to the job extensive experience in the Pacific, both operationally, as a Navy pilot, and in command positions.

Most recently, he spent two and a half years commanding U.S. Pacific Fleet, the world’s largest fleet command, with its 180 ships, 1,500 aircraft and 125,000 sailors and Marines. He previously commanded the Fighter Squadron 51 “Screaming Eagles”; the amphibious flagship USS Tripoli; the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln out of Everett, Wash.; Carrier Group 5 aboard USS Kitty Hawk; and 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan.

While he’s already putting his experience to work, Willard conceded that the top Pacom job demands an entirely different focus.

“This is a more strategic level of command than the components are, and as a consequence, it will be a little different level of engagement,” he said. “It’s a new experience for me, and I very much look forward to it.”

To help in preparing himself, Willard spent the past couple months consulting with think-tank and Asia experts and working with a small transition team to ensure a smooth transition to his new post.

He noted during his Oct. 19 assumption of command ceremony the vast changes that have taken place in Asia and the Pacific in recent decades. The one constant, he said, has been Asia’s growing importance, not just to the region, but to the world.

Willard said he’ll work tirelessly to ensure Pacom lives up to the challenges, and sends an unmistakable message of U.S. commitment to Asia and the Pacific.

“Our nation’s interests are here,” he said.

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Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard

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U.S. Pacific Command

Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, greet South Korean military officers during a welcoming ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 21, 2009. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley   
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