The Army I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is scaling back its plans to spend the next year strengthening ties with Pacific allies and instead focus on its upcoming assignment in Afghanistan.
Soldiers from the corps are still committed to participating in annual exercises with the Japanese military next month, but Lewis-McChord will send a smaller contingent than it had originally planned, I Corps spokeswoman Maj. Kathleen Turner said.
Those drills, called Yama Sakura, ranked highly among Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti’s priorities when he took command of the corps in October. He flew to Japan to meet one of his counterparts just four days after the announcement that he’d be the senior Army officer at Lewis-McChord.
More exercises are scheduled in South Korea next summer and with other Asian nations throughout 2011, Scaparrotti has said.
“The I Corps has traditionally had a focus on the Pacific and the intent is to regain that contact,” Scaparrotti said before the Pentagon announced last week that the I Corps would manage daily operations in Afghanistan next year.
The new mission led Army officers at Lewis-McChord to put their focus back on the Middle East, where the I Corps will have a leading role coordinating combat against the Taliban and al-Qaida in a yearlong deployment that starts this summer.
Fort Lewis’ history in the Pacific runs deep. Soldiers in the 2nd Infantry Division at the post were the first stateside units to join the Korean War in July 1950.
Likewise, Korea was the last combat deployment for the I Corps before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. The corps maintained Pacific ties for decades with key roles in joint exercises with South Korea and Japan.
Since 2002, the I Corps has been busy continually preparing soldiers for war in the Middle East. It has kept up its commitments to Japan and South Korea, but with smaller delegations of American soldiers participating in the exercises, Turner said.
The I Corps’ new assignment in Afghanistan means it likely wouldn’t be tapped if a worst-case scenario plays out on the Korean Peninsula with a conflict breaking out between North Korea and South Korea.
Tensions continue to simmer there a month after North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two soldiers. South Korea announced Wednesday it would “conduct its largest-ever ground and air live-fire drill near the border with North Korea” on Thursday, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
The exercise is expected to include “multiple launch rocket systems, anti-aircraft guns, attack helicopters and six Air Force jets, including two F-15s,” Yonhap reported.
That conflict appeared to ease last week when North Korea did not respond to other South Korean military drills. In March, North Korea attacked a South Korean submarine, killing 46 sailors.
About 200 Lewis-McChord soldiers from the I Corps were in South Korea participating in joint exercises five months after the attack on the submarine. They ran through scenarios centered on how to fight a combined-force war on the Korean Peninsula in an annual drill called Ulchil Freedom Guardian.
“There is no hiding that Korea has the potential to be a volatile place,” Scaparrotti’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson, told the Northwest Guardian newspaper after returning from the exercise. Johnson has since taken a new assignment leading U.S. forces in South Korea.