U.S. Army Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and their Royal Thai Armed Forces counterparts participate in a life fire exercise during Exercise Cobra Gold 2018 in Thailand, Feb. 18

U.S. Army Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and their Royal Thai Armed Forces counterparts participate in a life fire exercise during Exercise Cobra Gold 2018 in Thailand, Feb. 18 U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. David N. Beckstrom

In Pacific, US Army Shifts Training from Disaster Relief to War

The change reflects Trump’s defense strategy and rising threats from China and North Korea.

Not long ago, U.S. Army forces in the Pacific spent most of their training time preparing for humanitarian relief missions, evacuations from natural disasters, and efforts to build up allied security forces.

Not anymore. Since President Donald Trump has come to office, the administration has issued a new National Security Strategy focused on the persistent potential for military conflict with China and North Korea. The Army has shifted gears accordingly.  

“It’s dramatically different,” said Maj. Gen. Charlie Flynn, who manages the service’s strategy and plans as the service’s assistant deputy chief of staff. In the 1990s and 2000s, exercises in the Pacific were more “discreet, out-and-back operations” that “were kind of focused on disaster assistance, humanitarian relief, and it was really more for the ‘security cooperation’ part of it; much less so for interoperability,’” he said. “It’s vastly different today.”

Interoperability is Army-speak for how well different countries’ militaries can fight together. On cable TV, a notional U.S. conflict with China or North Korea is often talked about as if it would be a bilateral battle. That’s not the case, commanders stress, and that’s not how the Army is training.

“We know we not going to fight unilaterally anymore,” said Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky, who leads the Army’s I Corps. So their Pacific Pathways training program with foreign militaries is designed to find gaps between each one’s capabilities and address them.

“So we go to these countries not to do things like focus on humanitarian assistance,” Volesky said. “It’s to build readiness, not to consume it.”

Today’s training means more attacks, more live fires with company and battalion levels, and more of it with foreign counterparts. Previously, the Army would to go country-to-country for shorter training visits, but now have modified those programs to stay longer in each country for deeper training specific to fighting. “It’s really focusing on those warfighting tasks,” Volesky said.

Flynn, who has served as deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific and led the 25th Infantry Division, gave an example. The first time an American helicopter aircrew deploys to a new country, it takes roughly 24 to 36 hours to set up operations. But by their third country, it’s more like two hours.

The pace is quick. Besides the overseas training with allies, soldiers spend time in classrooms and at domestic venues such as the Army’s National Training Center in California. “It’s pretty busy,” Volesky said.

Volesky’s I Corps is unique; the Army has never before assigned an entire corps to one geographic region. The assignment shows the Pentagon’s seriousness about being ready to fight a major war in the Pacific.

Another data point: 20 percent of the Army is currently assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Flynn said.

“They’re committed because we do have multiple treaty allies out there, we do have multiple war plans out there,” he said. “That is a big difference from where we were some 15 years ago

And that’s all been done at the same time that operations are continuing the Middle East, and continuing in Europe, and commitments into Africa….”

So just how ready is the Army? During his presidential campaign, Trump said the the military had atrophied and pledged to “rebuild” by adding billions of dollars for new and modernized equipment. Some observers — especially some conservatives — sided with Trump, politicians, and Army leaders, citing various statistics to argue that the service needed more troops, new gear, and a larger budget. Others, like Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran reporter David Wood, disputed the president’s claim and chronicled how the Army had by 2016 shifted its focus, after a generation of counterinsurgency fighting, towards preparing for — and deterring — great-power conflict.

At this week’s annual Association of the U.S. Army convention, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the changes have worked, but warned the force cannot let up. “Today we face threats that are serious and growing and we must be ready for conflict that requires us to go to war in a very short period of time.” (AUSA head Carter Ham, retired commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, argued much the same in a Defense One commentary.)

The new focus is not unique to the Pacific. It’s a service-wide shift.

“The Army is back into doing gunneries on a routine basis. Artillery units are back into doing mass fires. Attack aviation units are back into doing significant aviation operations and air assault operations and so on. So, across the board, across the entire Army, there has been a refocus,” said Milley, as quoted by Army Times.

Flynn: “On any given day, we have over 100,000 conventional and Army SOF across the globe committed to combatant commanders...That doesn’t even count the other 80,000-plus that are assigned to the other combatant commanders across the globe.”

Volesky: “If you look at the trajectory the Army’s been on, the past four or five years, you can see a difference.”

Having predictable budgets the past two years has helped, he added. “I look at it and say we’re on a great trajectory but we have to make sure the funding levels...you gotta keep maintaining that, so these aren’t fleeting.”

Volesky said Trump’s decision to pause large training exercises in Korea has not forced him to alter the Army’s training program; a little pause is sometimes good, he said. Flynn said they are holding scheduling conferences with commanders more frequently to make sure soldiers have the right balance of training. “It is a juggling act, for sure.”

“I tease my wife,” Volesky said. When he took this job 18 months ago, “she was the only one who had been to Korea. I never had. Last year, I was there seven times.”