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Regional Partnerships Strengthen Pacific Operations

October 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Readiness, cooperation vital for missions across Asia.

In the event of a major crisis or conflict in the Pacific theater, U.S. forces may have to rely on regional allies to respond quickly and effectively. Relationships between the United States and its allies are maintained through continuous exercises and training events emphasizing collaborative decision-making and command and control. The U.S. military enhances its situational awareness by being aware of the sensitivities, culture and history of nations’ in this part of the world. This also serves to promote cooperation and coordination with local forces.

Unlike Europe, the Asia Pacific region does not have an overarching alliance such as NATO to direct regional defense. This situation has caused the Untied States to form a number of bilateral agreements with its allies. But nurturing and maintaining these pacts requires U.S. commanders to be adept at understanding the nuances of regional history and to consider both the diplomatic and military implications of an operation.

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) is responsible for maintaining peace and stability across the region. According to Brig. Gen. David P. Fridovich, USA, deputy director for operations, J-3, PACOM, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, the command focuses on the ongoing war on terrorism, maintaining a constant level of training and readiness for U.S. and allied forces throughout the theater and working with area nations to keep sea and air lanes open. But meeting these requirements is challenging because of the major command and control burdens placed on PACOM. “If we can’t do command and control as a combatant commander, we’re really at a loss and not much value-added to anybody,” Gen. Fridovich says.

To meet its operational demands and to cooperate better with regional allies such as Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, PACOM works through its subordinate commands in Japan and South Korea. This requires a robust communications capability combined with decision-making and information-sharing tools to speed a variety of operations from combat to anti-terrorism missions and bilateral training exercises. “In every case, what we’re trying to do is develop collaborative tools and the command and control structures that really get ahead of the enemy’s decision cycle,” the general offers.

Combating terrorism and maintaining regional security are two of the command’s key missions. Gen. Fridovich notes that PACOM maintains ongoing initiatives such as the Theater Security Cooperation Program designed to build up area nations’ military capabilities so they can better deal with terrorists and insurgents themselves. This permits nations to stabilize their own territory without U.S. military intervention. He adds that various components of the command and the U.S. Special Operations Command, Pacific, conduct a number of exercises and programs to train local forces. The Special Operations Command’s Joint Combined Exchange Training Program is designed to train both host nations’ units and the special operations personnel assigned as instructors. “It’s win-win,” the general maintains, “and that really gets us into another of our core tasks—training and readiness.”

These efforts have matured over the past decade into sophisticated exercises. The general cites the example of a recent event in Mongolia involving 24 nations from both within and outside of PACOM’s area of responsibility that focused on command and control and collaborative decision-making efforts. Such exercises are matched by security assistance and cooperative efforts across the region, he adds.

Because of the bilateral nature of the military and economic agreements across the region, understanding a country’s sensitivities is a necessity. One such instance involved anti-terrorist operations in the southern Philippines where it was unacceptable to mention the possibility of permanently basing American troops because of U.S. forces’ long history of basing on the islands prior to exiting in 1995.

Another regional challenge involved operating within the Philippine constitution. What U.S. forces called an operation, the Philippine military referred to as an exercise because it is unconstitutional for foreign troops to conduct combat operations in the territory. “I think realizing the sensitivities and the constraints really takes you out of the pure realm of applying military power to understanding how to apply military power in a sovereign nation,” Gen. Fridovich explains. He notes that for the Philippine mission, participating U.S. troops read the nation’s constitution to better understand the sovereignty issue.

Similar cultural nuances apply to allies such as Thailand. “They’ve been a nation for 600 some years. They have a history much longer than ours, and we’ve got to understand that we don’t always come there or anywhere with the right answer—or that our answer is the only answer,” the general says. Quite often, U.S. forces learn just as much or more than the nations they train. Before the war on terrorism began in earnest, many of the region’s nations had fought in more insurgencies and conflicts in the theater than had the United States. That was part of their historical experience, he adds.

Dealing with allied nations means respecting and understanding their history and culture, Gen. Fridovich says. “We’re not going to ignore that because it has a direct impact on what you can or cannot do operationally, and we realize that very, very clearly,” Gen. Fridovich maintains.

If a major conflict should flare up in the theater, PACOM will follow several courses of action. The first is to assess what forces are available in the area, their readiness postures and how long it would take them to reach the action. Another important task is to consult with a foreign policy adviser before any military action is taken. The adviser can provide vital information about a nation’s political situation and what actions are acceptable, he says.

But time and distance present some of the greatest challenges for military operations in a region with multiple time zones and the international date line. The general notes that there is a six-hour time difference between PACOM headquarters and Washington, D.C., and that Tokyo, Seoul and Manila are a day ahead. “When I talk about time, space and distance challenges, I really mean that quite often we’ve got to respond to Washington on their timeline to things that have already happened out in the theater,” he explains.

Modern telecommunications and information technologies have made users expect immediate, accurate responses no matter where they are on the planet. The general notes that decision makers always demand reliable redundancy in systems and that meeting this goal is a major challenge for military communications networks. “It [headquarters] could be afloat, it could be in an aircraft or in a very rustic joint task force in the southern Philippines where nobody has gone for years. People expect to plug and play and get the same effort anywhere they go. It can be austere, it can be developed like Korea or it can be absolutely undeveloped—and there is going to be more not less of that [operations in underdeveloped areas],” he says.

Another challenge for this joint architecture is collaboration and information sharing. Because all of the services have their own individual collaborative tools, the challenge is determining the right tools to provide accurate, real-time decisions, Gen. Fridovich explains.

Videoconferencing is an important tool in this process because it permits face-to-face contact without the need to physically move personnel around the region. He notes that the technology has greatly improved in reliability over the years, not only permitting rapid decision making between different commands and Washington, D.C., but also allowing visual information such as slides to be displayed and agreed upon. “It is a phenomenal tool because our jobs are really here. To have access to the decision makers and all the other systems and subject matter experts here at headquarters, you don’t want to travel that much. You want to go through your planning cycle, get everybody’s concurrence and go forward with the decision,” he says.