Pacific Command Faces New Set of Challenges

October 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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The 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge fires a flare during a nighttime exercise. The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) is facing new challenges as it attempts to navigate through security issues in the vast Asia-Pacific region.

Cooperation and dialogue become more valuable and more daunting.

Obstacles ranging from passive obstinance to active hostility are vexing efforts by the U.S. Pacific Command to maintain security across the vast Asia-Pacific region. The command has built a structure of stability throughout the region based on diplomatic and military cooperation with most of the several dozen nations that populate the hemisphere. However, new military challenges are putting plans and resources to the test.

U.S. military relations with China, the prominent military and economic power in Asia, are not where U.S. officials would want them to be. North Korea recently has engaged in deadly military action against U.S. ally South Korea. Cyberspace challenges are increasing, which is particularly demanding for a command that depends on networking to connect its assets across a vast area of responsibility. And, transnational groups such as terrorists are carrying out operations designed to replace stability with upheaval.

Adm. Robert F. Willard, USN, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), declares that maintaining security throughout the Asia-Pacific region is at the top of the command’s priority list. Stability permits economic growth, and many nations are enjoying a prosperity that stems from this stability. Ensuring continued stability requires maintaining ongoing efforts along with new endeavors to improve security.

In a SIGNAL Magazine interview, the admiral listed five long-term challenges facing the command in its efforts to preserve regional stability. The first challenge involves friends rather than adversaries. Strengthening alliances among allies and partners is at the heart of PACOM’s efforts at maintaining security across the vast Asia-Pacific region. The command has five treaty allies in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. Keeping those alliances strong and resilient contributes greatly to overall regional security, the admiral says.

Building partnerships is another important activity. Adm. Willard notes that the command has several emerging partnerships among the 36 nations that characterize the command’s area of responsibility. Among the more important partners are Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and the command is working to advance its relationships with those countries.

The second challenge involves another of those partners: India. The subcontinent’s emerging power is a U.S. strategic partner that the United States is trying to foster for security in that part of the Asia-Pacific region. India also is becoming a global power through its economic growth and increasing military strength. “We have a special focus on endeavoring to advance our relationship with India as major contributor to the security in the region,” Adm. Willard declares.

The third challenge is China, Asia’s dominant power. “It’s very important that we get the relationship with China right,” the admiral states. China has been demonstrating an increased assertiveness in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. PACOM must both deal with the challenges that China poses and engage China as a constructive partner in the long term, he emphasizes.

Military cooperation between China and the United States has waxed and waned over the years. Recently, China suspended military-to-military relations in response to proposed arms sales by the United States to Taiwan. The U.S. secretary of defense has stated that this suspension is a mistake, as it is important to maintain a dialogue between the two Pacific powers. Adm. Willard says, “We have been very vocal—I have been very vocal—with the Chinese in encouraging them to reconsider their current stance that military-to-military relations between our two nations should be an On-Off switch that they conveniently turn off when they happen to disagree with a decision that our government makes.” To be “a sophisticated international player,” China should recognize that the need for a continuous dialogue remains even if the two countries do not have a complete convergence of their views.

The fourth challenge facing PACOM is North Korea, which poses a direct threat to security in the Asia-Pacific region. Its sinking of the South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, in May indicates how serious a problem North Korea is, the admiral offers. PACOM must “effectively deter” North Korea from future provocations and maintain a strong alliance with South Korea, he states.

The command already has conducted one joint exercise with South Korea that was intended to send a message to North Korea, the admiral points out. That exercise included Japanese observers aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, and it featured the carrier strike group in a collection of 20 U.S. and South Korean ships off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. “We think that was successful in providing a strong deterrent message to North Korea,” Adm. Willard says.

That was only the first of several such exercises, he adds. Plans established before that operation call for more exercises in the waters off both the east and west coasts of Korea, the admiral points out, and these exercises are designed to provide a strong military message to deter more North Korean hostile acts such as the Cheonan sinking. PACOM continues to plan and provide options for this series of exercises, which the admiral says will be ongoing for some time. Details for these exercises will be announced in coming months.

The fifth of the five challenges is transnational threats. This broad topic includes problems such as piracy, human trafficking, narcotics smuggling and proliferation issues. But it is terrorism that is the command’s main focus in this challenge. Adm. Willard cites the attack on Mumbai, India, as an example. That attack was led by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a PACOM focus group is assisting Adm. Willard in developing a concept to contain that terrorist group. Other terrorist groups threaten Indonesia and the Philippines, and the command is active in countering their efforts.

PACOM faces other challenges outside of these five. Among the most important is cyberspace, and the command has been working cyber issues for many years. Adm. Willard notes that PACOM networks are the targets of attempted intrusions every day, so first and foremost the command defends its networks. It also is working to define how to command cyberspace better in the future, both for protection and for active defense in a future war. This effort in large part will emerge from the relationship between the new U.S. Cyber Command and regional commands such as PACOM.

While PACOM defends its networks daily and tries to improve its cyberdefense capabilities, the command also confronts the broader issue of how to characterize cyberspace and establish relationships for its command and control, the admiral points out. “Cyberspace has become an inherent part of our command and control apparatus,” he declares. “So, it’s critical that we be able to defend this so that we can continue to communicate and we can continue to characterize the Pacific Command domain.”


Adm. Willard (r) meets with Lt. Gen. Ricardo David, PA, chief of staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines, at a Philippines/U.S. Mutual Defense Board/Security Engagement Board meeting. The United States is helping the Philippines, one of five treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific region, counter a terrorist group threat.

With information technology (IT) now integral to the military’s ability to command and control its forces, organizations pay closer attention to both cyberdefense and IT innovations. “I can’t overemphasize the need to understand IT as commanders and to understand how to manage IT correctly and to defend IT to continue to advance our capabilities in the region,” Adm. Willard states. The manpower that the services are devoting to IT activities means that the military is attempting to develop professional warriors who understand its issues well enough “to fight information technology,” he adds.

For PACOM, IT is as much a warfighting domain as for other combatant commands, the admiral points out. Commanding and managing its IT architectures requires that PACOM characterize these architectures. However, they were not developed with this function in mind. Military IT architectures tended to evolve independently along the lines of function. Now, they must be managed and defended.

“To manage its defense, you have to be able to see into it; you have to have situational awareness of its status at all times and be aware of any pressures being placed on it by outside attack,” Adm. Willard says of the IT infrastructure. He continues that the ability to characterize those architectures is limited, and PACOM needs the additional technologies that will allow the command to characterize its command and control architectures in all domains. “[We want] to be able to see their current status, to be able to understand when they’re under attack, to be able to sense those attacks and to be able to respond to them,” the admiral emphasizes. “It’s very much about the situational awareness of our information technology domain.”

PACOM’s cyberspace efforts do not stop at U.S. borders. The command is working with several of its allies and partners on cyberspace issues. Adm. Willard says that the allies are working with PACOM as well as asking how they might strengthen their own approaches to cyberdefense as they undergo their own intrusive attacks. PACOM’s closest cyberspace allies are Australia, Japan and South Korea, the admiral notes, and cyberdefense aspects are a major element within the command’s defense contingency planning for those allies.

The command also is conducting discussions with other partner nations. Generally, when these nations come under pressure in cyberspace, they seek U.S. assistance at both the policy level and the operational level, he observes.

Missile defense is another vital element of PACOM’s obligations to its allies. The command has been building a missile defense architecture throughout the Pacific for several years, the admiral notes, and it continues to work closely with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on both technology and architecture. PACOM’s role is to defend both the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies, and this can include regional as well as theater missile defense. PACOM has capability in all those aspects, Adm. Willard states, and it adapts its missile defense needs to the threat.

Not surprisingly, he declares that North Korea is PACOM’s biggest concern for missile defense. Patriot missile batteries are based in South Korea, some of which are owned by that country. South Korea also has purchased Aegis ships, and the United States is exploring joint missile defense prospects with it. The admiral points out that the United States shares its early warning information with its regional allies, and it has held discussions with Australia on potentially developing a missile defense capability for that country.

The terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) system, part of the layered missile defense architecture, continues to undergo development and testing by the MDA in Hawaii. When it is deployed, it will be incorporated alongside the Patriot and the longer-range maritime missile defense capabilities if a layered missile defense is established, the admiral reports. “There is more to missile defense than just the SM-3 and the Aegis system,” he states. “The adaptive approach to missile defense that we’re taking is very much central, and it’s providing us with a sizeable capability.

“Missile defense is a very significant capability for the Pacific Command,” he continues. “We retain the responsibility to defend Hawaii and our territories in the Pacific, while Northern Command retains responsibility to defend the continental United States and Alaska. In national missile defense, we [PACOM and the Northern Command] work with one another, either in a supportive or supporting relationship, to ensure that there are no seams between [the defense against] the missile threat and the United States.”

Looking ahead five years, the admiral offers that, if PACOM is able to “get the five focus areas right,” then the command will have achieved its aims for enhancing the security of the region. This will allow it to shift its focus into other areas that require expanded management and effort. “It would be terrific to be able to come away from the time that we spend trying to enhance relationships and instead determine ways and means to best leverage those relationships to be able to contribute to the security of the nation,” Adm. Willard suggests. “If we’re successful in the challenges that we face here, then you’ll have a PACOM that will be able to be more refined in its focus and able to contribute to overall security [and add] other strategic partnerships throughout the region.”

U.S. Pacific Command:



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