Crises, Opportunities Define Pacific Command Operations

November 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Nurturing a regional security environment requires multifaceted coalition operations and connectivity.

The U.S. Pacific Command is weaving a web of security cooperation across thousands of miles encompassing diverse nations and territories, some of which are longtime adversaries. These efforts include engaging former foes to contain weapon and missile proliferation, spearheading coalition peacekeeping operations, encouraging multinational economic growth, and implementing new information systems technologies to increase interoperability among mixed forces.

Emerging nations are encouraged to join these security efforts through military and economic assistance programs, which in turn can be withdrawn if a nation’s actions run counter to U.S. principles and interests. Traditional allies are formally increasing military cooperation beyond their regular areas of interest. Officer contacts below command levels are promoted to clear up misunderstandings and sow the seeds of future close relationships. When all else fails, U.S. forces are deployed to potential trouble spots to assist allies and deter conflict escalation.

Underlying all of these efforts is information technology. As with most modern military forces, the command is relying on commercial information systems to provide state-of-the-art capabilities. However, it also must be able to incorporate interoperability among the four U.S. services and a host of potential coalition partners, especially to maintain connectivity across one-quarter of the Earth’s surface.

Adm. Dennis C. Blair, USN, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, explains that the command’s mission is twofold: ensuring security and encouraging the peaceful development of countries ringing the world’s largest ocean. The admiral describes this as “a combination of being ready to fight if we have to, but engaging people and making good things happen without conflict.”

Speaking in a SIGNAL interview, Adm. Blair relates that the region is interspersed with vital U.S. allies. Five of the United States’ mutual defense treaties are with countries in this area, and the nation is in constant contact with many other nations to further U.S. interests.

The dynamic and diverse region is not without its share of difficulties, however. The Korean peninsula, despite recent overtures by the administration toward North Korea, remains a heavily armed potential flash point. Longtime adversaries India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while engaging in armed conflict over Kashmir. Indonesia has seen its economy collapse, its 30-year leadership step down, and its region of East Timor erupt in violence following a referendum favoring secession. In addition, China and Taiwan have escalated their discord following statements by Taiwan’s leadership that China interpreted as a move toward independence.

Nonetheless, Adm. Blair emphasizes that the command has been “pretty successful” in its regional security efforts. “Despite all these hot spots … underneath it, we have good trends going toward being able to protect this country’s interests and continue with peaceful development to help this region recover from its recent economic crisis,” he states.

In this post-Cold-War era, the Pacific Command is similar to the European Command in that it requires assembling regional organizations to face common threats, the admiral allows. It differs from its European counterpart in that the Asia-Pacific region is much more dynamic, which requires greater flexibility. The development of China is a unique element, as is the revival of Japan’s economy and continuing maturation of its political environment. India, one of two new nuclear rivals in the region, will be the world’s most populous nation in 20 years. These ongoing changes give the developments in Asia a more complex character than those of Europe, he offers.

The biggest long-term challenge facing the command is to build a security structure that will underlie peaceful development, the admiral declares. This must be achieved without relying on a monolithic threat, as was the case during the Cold War.

A key element in this strategy is Japan. Adm. Blair calls the relationship between the United States and Japan “the most important of our alliance relationships,” particularly in terms of national interests, bilateral history and the basing of U.S. forces. Japan is undergoing a foreign policy transformation as it defines its security policies in the wake of the Cold War. The United States and Japan recently signed new defense guidelines, which were passed by the Japanese Diet, outlining self-defense cooperation in regional issues. “This relationship with our most important ally is getting better and stronger every day,” the Pacific commander declares.

Near-term challenges are more diverse and specific. North Korea, China and Taiwan, Indonesia, and India and Pakistan all pose immediate concerns to the command.

The foundation of the command’s efforts regarding North Korea remains deterrence against aggression. In cooperation with South Korea—and, with the signing of the new defense guidelines, Japan—the United States seeks to ensure that North Korea recognizes that military aggression will be counterproductive.

“North Korea must understand that if it starts military action, it will be the end of their regime,” Adm. Blair warrants.

Dealing with North Korea includes working through any individual crises that may arise, while maintaining deterrence and pursuing other goals. During recent naval encounters between North Korea and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, the Pacific Command moved some surveillance aircraft and ships into the area even though it was stretched to support operations in Europe.

The secondary aims, while no less important than deterrence, include limiting North Korea’s ballistic missile proliferation and its development of weapons of mass destruction. The administration recently loosened economic restrictions on North Korea in exchange for the communist country abandoning further ballistic missile tests. The hermit nation still maintains expertise in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons research, however.

Adm. Blair allows that the United States is consulting with China, Mongolia and Russia on these North Korean issues because the three nations “also share our interest in keeping a conflict from flaring up in that part of the world and in keeping North Korea from challenging security.”

The turmoil between China and Taiwan has remained a war of words without military escalation, and Adm. Blair notes that “we would like to keep it that way.” The September meeting in New Zealand between President Clinton and President Jiang of China was encouraging, the admiral says, and may set the stage for resuming contact with the People’s Liberation Army. Chinese/U.S. military contacts were suspended earlier this year after the accidental bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. “Contact between our armed forces is in both countries’ interests,” Adm. Blair states. “It enables us to ask the Chinese the hard questions about the development of their power in the region—specifically their military power—and it gives them the chance to ask us questions about the things that we are doing.” Key issues for the Chinese include theater missile defense cooperation in northeast Asia, he notes.

The Pacific commander explains that he is working to develop a security relationship between the United States and China. He says he is ready to re-engage China’s armed forces in dialog when the Asian nation resumes the contacts it severed after the embassy bombing. These discussions should take the same form as discussions with other nations—address possible coalition operations against a common enemy; cooperate in search and rescue, disaster relief and other humanitarian efforts; and team to assist each other when the two nations’ citizens are in danger elsewhere in the world.

Lower-level officers, such as lieutenant colonels and commanders, could begin to establish relationships that will benefit both countries when these officers rise in the ranks. This would help avoid misunderstandings that could rapidly deteriorate relations between the two Pacific powers. A premium would be placed on clarifying instead of misleading.

“We must be clear on issues that divide us, such as Taiwan, but we also should make sure that we understand each other’s viewpoints on the range of issues of concern,” Adm. Blair offers.

With Indonesia, all the world’s attention is on East Timor. However, the admiral adds, the entire nation of 17,000 islands measures 4,000 miles across and is fourth in population behind China, India and the United States. It is undergoing a massive transformation, both politically and economically, and it is trying to shift its armed forces away from domestic political involvement. The United States is assisting in this revamping of the Indonesian military, Adm. Blair notes, along with other issues.

“We must keep the pressure on Indonesia to ensure that it behaves correctly in East Timor and carries out the results of this referendum, which it called for and [which] has clearly come out in favor of independence,” he says. “There are many elements of the armed forces in East Timor who have been behaving badly, and that must be changed. However, we do not want to lose sight of the overall direction of this country and what the United States can do to help it become a more prosperous, more democratic country.”

The recent suspension of military cooperation between the United States and Indonesia is part of a two-part U.S. strategy, the admiral notes. This carrot-and-stick approach rewards professional behavior and punishes improper behavior by jeopardizing economic assistance as well.

The challenge in South Asia is to restore a deterrent stability between India and Pakistan, Adm. Blair says. Both countries, which share a considerable border, now possess nuclear weapons and a rapidly burgeoning ballistic missile capability (SIGNAL, April, page 17). The United States has not had good contacts with India’s armed forces in recent years, but the command is working to re-establish those ties and help restore a stable security structure in that region, he emphasizes.

One key element to maintaining security across the breadth of the Asia-Pacific region is information systems. A historical military approach is of a single chain of command; however, new information technology developments are changing the equation by providing many different chains of information. The command’s challenge is to manage and display that information in a way that enhances decision making, the admiral says.

As with many other military organizations, the Pacific Command is turning to greater use of World Wide Web pages instead of traditional methods for submitting message reports. This is a more efficient method of passing information, the admiral adds. The command also is developing the ability to determine the importance of specific information and how to display it at various command levels.

Videoconferencing is changing conference methods “back to the old days,” Adm. Blair notes. A group of commanders and their officers can “meet” face to face in a videoconference forum to resolve issues in hours or even minutes, instead of days with traditional message-exchanging methods.

Bringing coalition partners into these new information systems is a major challenge, the admiral adds. This is increasing in importance as the command relies on coalition operations to a greater degree. Assembling a military operation such as the East Timor peacekeeping mission requires linking up to 20 other countries with disparate forces.

To implement the East Timor operation, the command dispatched teams to Australia, the greatest contributor of forces and the major staging area. These teams determined the needed information systems and addressed interoperability issues. The command is more likely to be involved with coalition operations such as this one than in a solo U.S. activity, the admiral notes. “There is almost nothing we do here that we do alone,” he relates.

“With all this information technology, you become impatient because you are not getting ahead any faster. However, when you think about where we are compared to where we were five or 10 years ago, it’s incredibly more efficient. We are still impatient because we want to get everybody up to the necessary connectivity among all coalition partners.”

Challenges to achieving this connectivity include nontechnical issues such as multilevel security for intelligence and information assurance. These two may hinge on decisions based more on doctrine than on technology alone.

The admiral recently spoke with senior communicators from the armed forces of 20 other countries in the region, including a colonel from Vietnam. This communicators’ conference, which focused on information technology strategy for the 21st century, included topics such as the year 2000 bug, communications contingency planning, Asian satellite orbital rights and system security. Many of the nations in attendance are only now transitioning from single computer stations to local area networks.

Another challenge that emerges even among U.S.-only operations involves joint interoperability. The commander notes that many command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems are “born of service and fought jointly.” Building in joint characteristics “cradle to grave” remains a goal rather than an achievement. When the command builds a joint task force, it must include a group of systems communicators equipped with additional circuit boards to achieve interoperability. This can take up to three days, and multiple computers in joint task force command headquarters still may not interoperate or may offer different pictures of the battlefield.

Still to be resolved is the balance between internal system development and commercial acquisition. The command now has more confidence in commercial systems, Adm. Blair says. However, strict guidelines determining the dividing line between military-specific and commercially available are still in the works.

The admiral relates that he instructs potential commercial suppliers to place their equipment in a headquarters for hands-on evaluation. Within two days, personnel should be turning away from their familiar equipment toward the new gear because it serves their needs better and faster. If the new system passes the human test, it has earned its added value to replace the older incumbent. On the flip side, warning signs emerge if a commercial provider suggests sending personnel out for a week of training; bringing civilian experts in for some time to work with the military operators; or providing a system to be debugged by its headquarters users. This type of system will not “earn its place in the information technology architecture of the joint warfighter,” Adm. Blair declares.