“Boots On Our Ground, Please!”: The Army in the Pacific


“It’s great to be someplace where ‘boots on the ground’ is not an insult.” With these words, Secretary of the Army John McHugh kicked-off last month’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) annual meeting. He continued, to raucous applause, that the United States is, as President Obama termed it, “the indispensable nation,” and that, “we are the indispensible Army of that indispensible nation.”

Good meat and potatoes stuff for an Army crowd, but Secretary McHugh’s words tend to fall on deaf ears outside the medal-bedecked battalions assembled within the AUSA convention hall. Does anyone else share Secretary McHugh’s views? As the Army defines itself for the future, how does it make sure “boots on the ground” is a compliment rather than an insult, and how does it remain “an indispensible Army”?

The answer is not where you expect it to be. It lies far from the plains of the Cold War’s Fulda Gap, the deserts and valleys of Syria and Iraq, and the mountains of Afghanistan. In fact, the answer lies in the Asia-Pacific region where nearly 80% of the area is water. This is hardly a place one would imagine “boots on the ground” making the case for an indispensible Army. We would expect “flippers in the water” to be a more relevant theme.

Thousands of miles from the Army’s traditional and more recent stomping grounds of Europe and the Middle East, and many time zones away from where Americans go about their day, the United States Army in the Pacific is training its soldiers under a new concept called “Pacific Pathways.” Pacific Pathways provides a model that smartly uses Army forces overseas. It is a model that assures Americans that their military is keeping them safe from threats abroad, shows commitment to our friends and allies overseas, and demonstrates U.S. resolve to confront our adversaries.

Pacific Pathways is the brainchild of General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Army, Pacific (USARPAC). He recognized that President Obama’s decision to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region” presented the Army with a tremendous opportunity. Two decisions strengthened General Brooks’ hand. During the previous 12 years, departures of the 25th Infantry Division to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left large holes in the number of sizeable ground forces immediately available to respond to needs throughout the Pacific. Aside from the very capable, but smaller U.S. Marine Corps, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Sam Locklear, had few ground force options. In 2011, the Army made the decision to stop deploying the 25th Infantry Division to Iraq or Afghanistan, thus making the division’s soldiers, 16,000-strong, available full time to the Pacific. Quickly falling-in on the heels of that decision, the Army took I Corps, the 3-star headquarters based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside of Seattle, and provided it to General Brooks for his use. These two decisions gave General Brooks a 3-star headquarters and a division’s worth of soldiers with geographical proximity to the Asia-Pacific region. And thus, Pacific Pathways became a reality.

America’s overseas military presence takes several forms. “Forward stationing” involves the large presence of U.S. forces, their families, and support activities (hospitals, housing, schools, etc). The presence is based on long-standing agreements between the United States and host countries. Examples today include Germany, Korea, Japan, and Italy. But these arrangements are costly, limit the military’s options to shift forces globally, and because they do not generate jobs within congressional districts, do not have much support on Capitol Hill.

A second form of America’s military presence is “forward deployment,” whereby American forces are sent to countries for up to 12 months. Military units go to these countries without families and into areas that range from the austere to the developed militarily. Examples of the former include our ongoing military support to combat the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa and among the latter are our more established, but still expeditionary bases in the Arabian Gulf region. But these bases are also costly, remain subject to the host country’s cultural and political sensitivities (which may differ from our own), and limit U.S. military operations to only a localized area, for a specific task, over an uncertain timeframe.

Pacific Pathways is a third form of overseas military presence that merits serious consideration as a model for the future. You can read General Brooks’ article, “Rebalanced and Beyond — Answering the Call section,” for specifics of the recently completed Pacific Pathways. In short, with the Air Force and Navy providing critical air- and sea-lift support, the Army sent a brigade of soldiers, equipped with Stryker combat vehicles, throughout the Pacific. They traveled first to Indonesia, then to Malaysia, and finally concluded in Japan. Prior to embarking on their Pacific-wide exercise, these soldiers from Joint Base Lewis McChord, near Seattle, Washington, trained for 30 days at Fort Irwin, California. In essence, the brigade created a “pathway” that began in Washington State, ran through California, and stretched a route across the Pacific via Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan. This first iteration of Pacific Pathways highlighted several key outcomes: it showed the critical role our military communities in California, Washington State, and Hawaii played in providing training and logistics readiness; reassured Asia-Pacific countries of American commitment; affirmed the importance of people-to-people relationships, from the youngest soldier to the most senior official; and highlighted the partnership that exists between the Army, Navy, and Air Force to carry out the missions the American people expect of its military. And not inconsequentially, Pacific Pathways was conducted without the huge costs normally associated with extended overseas presence. As General Brooks points out, “we have to have more faces, in more places, without more bases.”

As with any new concept, skepticism and criticism are to be expected. And with any new concept, healthy debate contributes to a better overall product, so it must become part of the dialogue and solution. Pacific Pathways is no exception. It has its detractors who hold strong opinions about the Pacific Pathways approach. What are these criticisms?

“This is a Marine Corps mission”

Some have attached the Army’s Pacific Pathways for moving in on what they see as the Marine Corps’ traditional tasks and turf in the Pacific. There is no doubt that we have superb Marines in the finest Marine Corps in the world. So why wouldn’t the Army want to make sure that we become better teammates? Both services have seen cuts and, as the headlines show every day, the demand for U.S. military involvement around the world is not diminishing. In this time of reduced budgets, we must take advantage of what the Army and Marine Corps can do together, as neither can afford to go it alone. The Pacific region is vast, providing plenty of opportunities for Marines and Soldiers to work alongside other countries, whether it’s military training or responding to a natural disaster. In response to the Army’s efforts in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force and US Marine Corps Forces Japan, stated, “I’ve never been on a crowded battlefield.”  He added, “I’ve never been anywhere where I said … ‘There’s too many guys here.’”

“The Army’s Pacific Pathways presence is fleeting – it doesn’t show true commitment”

Pacific Pathways will provide routine training events, with 29 exercises in 12 Asia-Pacific countries currently planned. It complements a host of other training exchanges that occur, including the State Partnership Program, in which National Guard soldiers regularly train with a partner country. For example, Oregon is partnered with Bangladesh, Idaho with Cambodia, Washington with Thailand, Guam with the Philippines, and Hawaii with Indonesia.

“Pacific Pathways is another means to contain China”

This opinion, either through China’s view of how Pacific Pathways affects its own country, or how Pacific Pathways affects other countries with ties to China, is groundless. The United States places no prohibitions, vis-à-vis Chinese relations, as a prerequisite for other countries’ Pacific Pathways participation. Last month, just after their Pacific Pathways experience, Indonesia sent their Defense Minister to China to meet with the Chinese Military Commission’s Vice Chairman to discuss continued military cooperation. The United States continues to conduct military exercises with China, most notably this summer’s RIMPAC maritime exercise, which saw four Chinese ships participate. Less headline-grabbing was a disaster management exercise held in Hawaii last November involving 60 Chinese soldiers and U.S. soldiers from USARPAC. Instead of China seeing Pacific Pathways as one more element of a U.S. strategy to contain it through the “rebalance to the Pacific,” they should view it as a future opportunity for increased military-to-military cooperation.

Pacific Pathways is not the U.S. Army’s attempt to leave a strand of razor wire along the shores of Southeast Asia to contain China. It is not the Army’s attempt to create its own wake across the Pacific Ocean and exclude the Navy and Marine Corps. Instead, Pacific Pathways is the manifestation of the Army’s desire to lay down the stones of a pathway throughout the Asia-Pacific region, stones that can be joined by others and stones that future U.S. Army forces will walk upon when asked, “boots on our ground, please.”


Brigadier General Dan Karbler is currently the Director, Joint and Integration, as part of the Army Staff, G-8. He previously commanded the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, where he had the responsibility for ground-based air and missile defense forces throughout the PACOM area of operations.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army