The Wrong Path in the Pacific

Editor’s note: In this blog post, Federal Executive Fellow Aaron Marx responds to a December 29, 2013 Washington Post article entitled, “Army’s ‘Pacific Pathways’ initiative sets up turf battle with Marines,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which argues that the Army’s concept replicates what the U.S. Marines already accomplish in the region.

The U.S. Army recently published the “Pacific Pathways” paper, in which the United States Army Pacific Commander (USARPAC) indicates his concern with a new level of uncertainty and complexity in the Indo-Asia environment. While it’s true that new challenges are emerging, what’s troubling is that the paper concludes that they have to be met with an Army solution.

The joint combination of afloat U.S. Marines and Navy ships in the region and forward deployed U.S. Army and Air Force forces in Korea and Japan has long been the means we have ensured our national security ends in the region. More recently, these have been supplemented with new deployments in places from Australia to the Philippines. What the Pacific Pathways paper proposes however is not a supplement, nor a replacement to this activity, but simply a less-capable replication.

The concept of operations in the Pacific Pathways approach entails approximately 700 soldiers, 146 ground vehicles and 11 rotary-wing aircraft organized around a battalion maneuver force and supported by a brigade “Mission Command” element and an aviation support element (mix of AH-64s, UH-60s and CH-47s). Together, it would travel around the Pacific participating in multiple joint and/or Army exercises. This force would attend a National Training Center rotation and then “island hop” from exercise to exercise using a mix of commercial air, military air and Military Sealift Command (MSC) shipping instead of returning to its home base. Basically, think of it as a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) without the ships, the expertise or doctrine.

What does the nation really need? Certainly not another Marine Corps. The United States Army is the best in the world at what it does, but this concept commits significant resources to duplicate what the USMC already does, with a lighter footprint and more capability and training. While the argument might be that we need to integrate more joint assets, could anything be more joint than the team that the Navy, Marine Corps and Special Operations units we already have operating in the Pacific region? The Navy and Marine Corps team does not need the assistance with theater engagement, bilateral training, emerging crises or natural disaster response that Pacific Pathways seeks to provide. The Navy and Marine Corps team just needs the ships and budgetary support to continue doing what it already does and has done since 1775.

What core competencies can Pacific Pathways accomplish? United States Army LTG Robert B. Brown was quoted in The Washington Post, saying, “If your brigade is on the way to Malaysia and a typhoon hits the Philippines, you can take a left turn and there you are.” Actually, typhoon Haiyan serves as a useful example of how mistaken this notion is; you can’t just take a left turn and show up, you have to have expeditionary equipment and experience to back it up. On November 7, 2013 Haiyan, a category five super typhoon, struck the Philippines, and by sunset on November 10 the Navy and Marine Corps already had 100 Marines and sailors on the ground assisting in the most devastated regions. KC-130J cargo airplanes and MV-22 Osprey, equipment inherent to the team, allowed a fast response, and they were later followed by the Gator Navy, which provides access to the shore with or without a sea port.

There is nothing expeditionary about the Pacific Pathways concept. Pacific Pathways claims it would “utilize two charter aircraft to transport 700 people and one MSC ship to transport 142 pieces of equipment to enable sustainment of expeditionary capabilities.” In the Philippines, charter aircraft could not have landed anywhere close enough to the disaster area for the 700 personnel on board to provide any recovery relief, and the MSC ship carrying all their required gear could not have docked anywhere nearby for weeks. 

As far as operating jointly, Army aviators have operated in joint environments around the globe ever since the helicopter was included as a means of assault support and close air support and there is no doubt that Army pilots could learn how to land and operate on a ship. But from first-hand experience as an aviator on the USS Boxer, USS Bonhomme-Richard and the USS ESSEX, pilot proficiency and flying is only one aspect of the problem at hand. A quick examination of potential maintenance issues and resultant costs is illustrative: every Army helicopter would need significant modifications in order to safely operate in a blue water environment, costs that would easily exceed millions of dollars per aircraft. New rotor heads to support new foldable blades, rewiring for new lighting schemes and minimum communication procedures with deck handlers, chain tie down mounts to properly secure the helicopters during rough seas, rotor brakes that would run off of an entirely different and/or potential additional hydraulic system and a different fuel acceptance nozzle system are but a few of the needs. Yet the Army is confident that they can work out the “kinks.” Unfortunately, these are not kinks; they are structural changes that cost millions of dollars per aircraft. Why would it be good for the United States to incur all of this additional cost at a time of tough budgetary challenges for all, indeed when the Marine Corps already accomplishes this mission?

Not only redundant and expensive – some estimates place the cost as high as $20 million per excursion, with the potential for three per year – it appears many concept planning considerations remain. In October 2013, Chief of Staff of the Army General Odierno reported that only two of the Army’s brigades were combat ready. Yet Pacific Pathways plans to have “USARPAC internally fund this proof of principle at a cost of $14.8 million using exercise funds and other funds for transportation.” We will be robbing Paul’s readiness to replicate what Peter already does. The Navy and Marine Corps team is already budgeted for this mission, has the right equipment and experience and has incorporated future funding into already approved program objective memorandums.

It is important for all the services to play their valuable roles in the joint responsibilities in the Asia Pacific region. But in this battle, we need our Army to be an Army, not another Marine Corps.