U.S. Army to Asia: “We’re Back”

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Lt. Harold Fullmer talks with Japan Ground Self Defense Force soldiers during a joint exercise at the Kita-Fuji Training Area, Japan, in October. Fullmer belongs to a Texas National Guard unit, but more active duty troops will be appearing in the Asia Pacific region.

CAMP SENDAI, Japan – For evidence that the U.S. rebalancing in Asia is more than rhetoric, take a look at the shoulder patches that U.S. troops are wearing at a major war exercise here this week: the 25th Infantry Division, 8th Army, I Corps.  These are Army units that were heavily engaged in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are making their first appearance at the annual Yama Sakura command post exercise in more than a decade.

“I call it a ‘re-focus,’” says Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, a veteran of a half-dozen Pacific assignments who heads the U.S. side of the exercise; he is currently commander of all U.S. Army forces in the Pacific. “We have not been able to provide the Pacific Command with the Army arrow in its quiver for the last 11 years. Now, you are going to see more opportunity for everything from individual exchanges, to platoons, to companies, to battalions, even to command post exercises of this size. We’re able to do that now because everybody is home.”

The Yama Sakura exercise, which rotates annually among Japan’s five regional army groups, is designed to test the ability of U.S. and Japanese commanders to respond to a major ground invasion.  That seems an unlikely scenario nowadays – would China really try to seize the Kanto plain? – but Wiercinski says it allows U.S. and Japanese forces to prepare for a wide range of missions, including disaster relief.

By a quirk of scheduling, this week’s exercise is being held at the same Japan Ground Self Defense Force camp where Operation Tomodachi, the military response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, was headquartered in 2011. More than 100,000 Japanese and 10,000 U.S. troops were mobilized in that effort, which triggered a resurgence in support for both forces among the Japanese public.

“What we did in Operation Tomodachi was the same thing we would do, with minor differences, in an armed conflict. We use the same techniques, the same coordination. We would communicate the same way,” says Wiercinski.

As it happens, Wiercinski was involved in much of the planning for relief operations as commander of U.S. Army forces in Japan; he was driving to Tokyo’s Narita Airport to report to a new assignment in the United States when the magnitude 9 earthquake struck just off the coast of Sendai on March 11, 2001. More than 15,000 were killed and thousands more are still missing.

Some 800 U.S. soldiers based in Japan, Hawaii, South Korea and Washington state, along with 4,500 troops from Japan’s Northeastern Army, are taking part in the Yama Sakura (Mountain Cherry Blossom) exercise.  Army reservists and National Guard troops had taken the place of active duty U.S. soldiers in recent years but regular Army troops are now returning.

Wiercinski says the Army is shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region as combat rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and units pick up their previous missions. Relatively few Army troops are based in Asia, but Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said this week that 70,000 Army troops, mostly in the U.S., would be aligned for operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Here are excerpts from a conversation with Wiercinski during a break in the Yama Sakura exercise this week:

Is it really necessary for the Army to re-orient to the Pacific? After all, the Marines have 15,000 troops in Japan, are building new facilities on Guam and the Northern Marianas, and have sent a unit of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia, that will eventually grow to 2,500.  

“The Marines are expeditionary and they do that very well. But when it comes to the long haul and sustainment, that has to come from the Army because of its size and its capabilities. Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the region. Of the 27 nations that have militaries out here, 26 of them are army dominant. This is an army theater…  People say to me, ‘Hey, we got 250 Marines in Darwin, Australia.’ With all due respect to the commandant of the Marine Corps, they’re great guys, but it’s 250 Marines. This is a big place – there’s enough work for everybody.”

OK. Does that mean we’ll see more soldiers based in the region?

“We are not interested in that. But we have to look at ways to reduce this tyranny of distance. This is a logistics theater. I could put 700 soldiers in two 747s and be here in eight hours – but where’s the equipment, the logistics?… We’re looking very actively at prepositioning equipment that people can fall in on. You train on the West Coast, you get culturally focused on the area that you are regionally aligned with, then if something occurs, you put soldiers on a plane, fly over, link up with your equipment, and move out. That’s what I’d like to see and that’s kind of the grand strategy.”


Lieut. General Frank Wiercinski

With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, is the Army looking for someone new to fight?

“I’m not looking for any enemies. I’m looking for engagement. I’m looking for staying in ‘phase zero’ operations out here. If you look at my mission statement, it says, ‘ensure peace, security and stability.’ Nowhere in there does it say ‘attack.’ I’m looking to keep it right where it is, and that’s hard enough, given some of the actors in the area.”

How concerned are you about China’s growing military capabilities? Do you see China as a threat?

“I think China wants the same thing that everybody wants, and that’s to maintain stability and security. How we choose to go about that I think might be different. But China doesn’t want a war out here, nobody does. It just doesn’t help anybody’s national interest.”

What’s your biggest worry?

“It’s North Korea. You’ve got a 29-year-old five-star general in charge. They’re getting ready to launch a missile. They have two UN Security Council resolutions telling them not to do this, and they’re just blatantly going on with it.  From what we saw with the last one, you don’t know where these things are going to go, or how far they’re going to go. One of those could fall in South Korea, in the Philippines. Nothing good comes of this. Yeah, that keeps me up at night.”