- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Within 10 years, U.S. Pacific Command will become the military’s strategic center of gravity, supplanting Central Command and its focus on al Qaeda and the Middle East as the Pentagon “pivots” toward Asia.

At a ceremony this month at PACOM headquarters in Hawaii, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III took command of the 250,000 U.S. military personnel, 180 ships and 1,400 aircraft based in the Pacific region.

“In a world where the economy, population and military power are all shifting toward the Pacific, the job you fill today has never been more important,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him.

“We have made clear that we are a Pacific power,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at the event, adding that PACOM’s commander needs to be “a great diplomat” as well as “a great warrior.”

PACOM’s vast area of responsibility covers about half the earth’s surface. The 36 nations in its realm include half the world’s total population, two of the world’s biggest economies (China and Japan), the world’s largest democracy (India) and the world’s most populous Muslim nation (Indonesia).

The region includes the volatile Korean Peninsula, where 28,500 U.S. military personnel and their South Korean allies face North Korea’s army across the armistice line of a war that finished more than half a century ago but was never formally ended.

The stability of North Korea, where a 20-something dictator who inherited the post from his father presides over a hermetic and crumbling totalitarian state, is a matter of “great concern” to the command’s leaders, said Maj. Gen. Roger F. Mathews, deputy commander of Army forces in PACOM.

“We have a very long-term, very powerful relationship with our South Korean allies,” Gen. Mathews said, expressing confidence that U.S. forces in the region can deal with “the whole spectrum of possible conflict” on the peninsula.

In many ways, Korea is a model for PACOM, which faces the task of having to expand the U.S. military’s impact in the region without additional resources, given the current fiscal climate.

The Army’s role in that is to help leverage the manpower and firepower of U.S. allies in the region, including Australia, Thailand and Indonesia, Gen. Mathews said.

“How can we help maximize the capabilities of our allies?” he asked rhetorically. The answer, he said, is to exercise and train alongside them.

U.S. training missions increasingly would involve units not based in the region but rotating in and out from bases in the United States as they are pulled out of Afghanistan.

“Part of the strategic shift [toward Asia] is to ensure that as many units as possible have the skills and the experience of working in the region,” Gen. Mathews said.

Even as the Army draws down its overall manpower, commanders will keep the 67,000 soldiers it has in PACOM. “You’re not going to see the numbers change,” the general said.

Nonetheless, the forces’ capabilities will grow as more specialist units are moved into the region or developed there, he said.

In addition to the Army forces based there, five of the 11 U.S. aircraft-carrier strike groups are based in the PACOM theater, as are three of its six squadrons of the newest fifth-generation fighter jets, the F-22 Raptor.

The F-22 Raptor is the most expensive piece of military hardware in history. For $77.4 billion, the Pentagon bought a total of 187 planes - a cost of $413 million each.

The fighter jets are designed to outfly and outfight competitors from even the most advanced militaries, providing U.S. commanders with the guarantee of air superiority vital for the projection of military power across the vast Pacific region.

But the Raptor provides not only superiority in the air, say U.S. officials, who have hinted at secret cyberwar capabilities.

The F-22 is “an extremely capable, leading-edge technology platform,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael A. Keltz, director of strategic planning and policy for PACOM, told bloggers last year.

He said the aircraft gives commanders the ability to see and act, “not just in the air-to-air regime, but also in the cyberregime, the electronic-warfare regime.”

The cyberdomain is a key area for the command because China, PACOM’s largest and most threatening potential enemy in the region, likely would strike first with cyberweapons in any war, according to a recent report by a congressional blue-ribbon panel.

A pre-emptive Chinese cyberstrike would be designed to disrupt the electronic networks on which U.S. forces rely to organize and move troops and their supplies of ammunition and fuel around the Pacific, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.