Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s senior general is Down Under this month leading one of the biggest examples yet of the Pentagon’s changing focus from wars in the Middle East to new challenges along the Pacific Rim.
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown is in charge of some 3,000 American and Australian service members on the ground carrying out a drill simulating the liberation of a fictional Pacific country from an invading nation. About 25,000 more troops are participating by sea and air.
Meanwhile back home, about 600 Lewis-McChord soldiers are working late hours to participate in the exercise through computer networks at the base. Lewis-McChord’s artillery and aviation brigades are among the simulated players.
It’s a sign of things to come for Army units south of Tacoma. Their main headquarters, the I Corps, now reports to the Navy-led Pacific Command instead of shaping its training exclusively for wars in the Middle East.
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“This is rebalance in action,” Brown said in a phone interview Thursday.
He is in Australia for what is known as the fifth biennial Talisman Saber exercise. The Pentagon calls this year’s event its most comprehensive yet, in part because of the heavy involvement of ground forces in Brown’s command.
Soldiers and Marines are facing two main tasks: going head-to-head with a professional army as if they were at war with a country such as North Korea, and carrying out stability operations against insurgencies similar to what U.S. troops have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That mission “takes every single thing we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Brown said.
“They push you really hard. We’re really good, but if you’re good they ramp it up, they make you sweat,” he said.
His boots on the ground are augmented by some 90,000 more simulated soldiers. They’re woven into the battlefield from simulation centers in Hawaii, California and at Lewis-McChord.
That gives Brown and other senior officers more of a sense of the options they’d have in real combat while minimizing the financial costs and environmental impacts of the exercise.
When complete, the exercise will signify that the I Corps is a deployable Army headquarters available to the Pacific Command to lead combat and humanitarian missions in the region. The corps last deployed to Afghanistan in 2011-12, and to Iraq in 2009-10.
It’s next assignment marks the first time in eight years that the Navy Pacific Command commander could call up an Army headquarters, Brown said.
“This is vital to our posture and the availability” of ground forces, said Pacific Command’s Maj. Gen. Rick Burr during a visit to Lewis-McChord in May. He is an Australian officer assigned to the American command.
Until recently, most U.S. soldiers were on repeated deployment tracks to Iraq and Afghanistan. They generally do not expect to return there now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.
That frees up two Army National Guard Divisions and an airborne brigade to connect with their Australian counterparts and practice in the field together. The Marines sent their MV-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft to Talisman Saber for the first time, Stars and Stripes reported.
Some of the challenges exposed by the exercise include the heavy price of logistics for an Army operating across the expanse of the Pacific. Brown has called that a strength for Lewis-McChord, which can send soldiers and equipment to far-flung destinations from Puget Sound ports or McChord Air Field.
The drills have stirred unrest among Australian civilians. Earlier this month, two AV-8B Harrier jets dropped four bombs that struck near the protected Great Barrier Reef. The Defense Department said the pilots had no other choice, but the potential damage to an environmental treasure upset Australia’s Green Party.
Other protesters have called attention to what they see as the U.S. military’s growing presence in Australia, which some view as a hedge against China’s rising military and unrest in North Korea.
Brown said the Army does not intend to place a base in Australia.
“We don’t need to have a permanent presence in Australia, but we do need to train with them,” he said. “The important thing is we’re working closer than we ever have together.”
Back home in the South Sound, the exercise is one of the larger ones that the simulation center has executed; it’s also the first linking the local base with Australian partners, said Mike Peppers, director of Lewis-McChord’s Mission Training Complex.
Next up, Peppers is preparing similarly complex Pacific Rim scenarios that will let Lewis-McChord soldiers participate in drills scheduled for Japan and South Korea.