Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Amid plans for a sweeping realignment of U.S. military services in Asia and the Pacific, the Army has begun extensive changes to become more flexible and expeditionary than it has been since the Vietnam War ended 30 years ago.

From Hawaii, headquarters of the Army in the Pacific, to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. mainland, to Alaska, to South Korea and to Japan, the Army is being transformed, in the current buzzword of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Lt. Gen. John M. Brown, commanding general of the Army in the Pacific, says: “Almost every one of our brigades and divisions, and all of our major headquarters, will be undergoing transformation over the next two years to better enable us to fight the war on terrorism or engage in any other military operation.”

The Army recently activated a new air defense command at Fort Shafter, headquarters of the Army in the Pacific. The 94th Air and Missile Defense Command can deploy anywhere in the region to fight beside the Pacific Air Force against aerial attack.

Next year, the first elements of a new Stryker Brigade are to arrive at Schofield Barracks, the Army’s main post in Hawaii. The key equipment for the brigade’s 3,900 soldiers will be 300 of the 20-ton armored vehicles transportable by air. Another Stryker brigade has been posted in Alaska and three more will be formed at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

Supporting the brigade combat teams for the first time will be a reconnaissance battalion with long-range sensors, including unmanned aerial drones, and analysts to provide quick assessments to brigade commanders. Before, such capabilities were available only at higher levels and it took time for intelligence to trickle down to combat commanders.

At Pearl Harbor there is an Army experimental ship, the twin-hulled catamaran Spearhead, that can move Strykers, troops and weapons at 40 knots for 2,500 miles. The Army plans to acquire 12 vessels, starting in 2010, with high-tech planning and communications gear that can prepare a force in transit to fight when it lands instead of awaiting marching orders.

A brigade of paratroopers recently activated in Alaska has already shown an ability to overcome what U.S. military officials call the “tyranny of distance” in the vast Pacific. The brigade loaded 600 paratroopers into six C17 aircraft where they strapped on chutes in-flight and flew 17 hours with aerial refueling to jump into northern Australia at 1 a.m.

To set up a forward operational headquarters, the Army plans to move the I Corps headquarters from Fort Lewis to Camp Zama, a U.S. post southwest of Tokyo. Negotiations with Japan produced an agreement announced prior to President Bush’s meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during last week’s presidential visit to Japan.

At the next level up, the Army headquarters in Hawaii, known officially as United States Army, Pacific or USARPAC, has been primarily responsible for providing trained and equipped troops to other commands in Asia as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Over the next 18 to 24 months,” Gen. Brown said, “things will change; we’ll keep all our existing missions but we will also become a war-fighting headquarters.” That will require the command to devise war plans, prepare for contingencies, and organize a staff to control forces across all military operations.

The headquarters of the Army in the Pacific also is preparing to assume command of Army forces in South Korea, gradually being reduced and perhaps to the point of eventual withdrawal. Plans call for dismantling or shrinking the U.N. Command in Seoul that dates back to the Korean War that ended in 1953.

The Army also plans to transfer the 8th Army headquarters from Seoul to Hawaii and to turn back to the South Koreans control of their forces commanded today by a joint U.S.-South Korea headquarters. The four-star American general’s post in Seoul would move to Hawaii.

Military officers say this could happen by 2008 or any time later. The official line is the North Korean threat must lessen and the peninsula stabilize first. The unofficial betting is that rising anti-Americanism in Seoul will make that move happen sooner than later.

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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