The Defense Department’s highest ranking officer in the Pacific is visiting Joint Base Lewis-McChord today to get battle-hardened Iraq and Afghanistan veterans thinking about new challenges in Asia.
Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear’s trip to Lewis-McChord is another signal in the Pentagon’s shift in focus from wars in the Middle East to emerging threats and neglected alliances in other parts of the world.
“We can’t stay Middle East-focused forever,” Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told Lewis-McChord I Corps troops today.
The base south of Tacoma supplied about 10,000 soldiers a year to Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the past decade.
With the wars ending, the Pentagon “aligned” Lewis-McChord’s units with Locklear’s command. That means local soldiers will be expected to respond to humanitarian crises, nurture relationships with allied armies and work to prevent large-scale conflicts from unfolding.
Locklear told I Corps that complex environment calls on them to prepare for:
- A warming planet causing the rise of sea levels and destabilizing Pacific countries;
- Violent extremist groups, such as ones that have carried out terrorist attacks in India and the Philippines;
- International narcotics smugglers and human traffickers;
- And, a nuclear-armed North Korea.
So far, the Pentagon is protecting Lewis-McChord’s new task in the Pacific from potential budget cuts. Lewis-McChord soldiers over the next 12 months are on course to carry out exercises in Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.
The fact that those exercises are still scheduled to take place despite the threat of looming budget cuts shows the value the Defense Department is placing on Lewis-McChord’s work in the Pacific, I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown said earlier this week in a briefing that led up to Locklear’s visit.
“You might think this is routine and normal,” he said. “In this environment, nothing is routine and normal.”
Those exercises often fell to Fort Lewis soldiers in the past. Recently, though, Iraq and Afghanistan took precedence and units from other stations filled in at the Pacific drills.
Locklear’s visit came at the end of a week of classes I Corps soldiers took to prepare for their exercises in Australia this summer. The drill will call on them to overcome an enemy and then stabilize a local population. The idea is to incorporate a traditional battle plan with lessons learned from the long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You will hear we’re going to get back to basics, but I would submit to you that the basics have changed,” Brown said.
Locklear today spoke for about 40 minutes and then took questions from I Corps soldiers who put him on the spot for his take on nuclear proliferation, U.S. partnerships with India, Japan’s strengthening military and Chinese cyber attacks.
He stressed that U.S. forces can shape a security environment in such a way as to prevent war instead of planning only for how to defeat an enemy in battle.
“We don’t want (war) for our children and we don’t have to have it,” he said.