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Navy likely to keep long-standing grip on Pacific Command

(U.S. Pacific Command)

There’s been some extra drama attendant to the Pentagon’s selection of the next head of U.S. Pacific Command on Oahu — and not only because that person will have to counter a runaway North Korean nuclear program and a militarily assertive China.

Adm. Harry Harris, the current, highly respected head of Pacific Command and a hard-liner against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, is expected to retire in May, possibly to become ambassador to Australia.

Adm. Scott Swift, who commands U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, was seen as a shoo-in as the next Pacific commander — until he was told he was being passed over for the job by Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, in the wake of a series of Navy ship collisions in the Western Pacific last year.

Swift in late September announced he planned to retire — with no date given.

The Pacific Command, headquartered at Camp Smith, has been led by Navy admirals since its creation as a unified command in 1947. In a potential upset to that maritime lineage, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who is in charge of Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was reported in October to be the “leading nominee” by DefenseNews.com.

The Pentagon tried to break the Navy’s hold on Pacific Command in 2004 — unsuccessfully — with the nomination of Air Force Gen. Gregory “Speedy” Martin, who faced withering questioning from U.S. Sen. John McCain over a tainted Boeing contract before withdrawing his name from further consideration.

Powerful Hawaii U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who died in 2012, once said that the Pacific was a “water command” that should be led by an admiral. McCain, a former Navy jet pilot, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is seen as a Navy supporter and often has been an Air Force critic. The Navy still holds a lot of sway over the top job at the Pacific Command.

The Pacific Command is the oldest and largest of the United States’ nine unified commands, covers more than half the globe and includes seven of the world’s 10 largest standing armies.

About 375,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel are assigned to the command. Its subordinate Pacific Fleet has 200 ships and nearly 1,100 aircraft.

In contrast, U.S. European Command has had 12 Army commanders since 1952 but also three Air Force, one Marine Corps and one Navy officer at the helm.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig” Leaf, deputy commander of Pacific Command from 2005 to 2008 and now managing director for security consultant Phase Minus 1, said the Defense Department doesn’t put “average, mediocre flag officers” in charge of combatant commands.

“Whoever is nominated and confirmed as the Pacific Command commander is bound to be an extraordinarily capable officer and do a very credible job,” Leaf said. “Because that’s what every PACOM commander does — (and) it’s not because they are all naval officers.”

So “whoever it is is going to be great,” Leaf added. “Would Gen. O’Shaughnessy be a fine Pacific Command commander? … Of course he would be.”

Leaf said there’s something to be said for mixing it up in combatant commands that are joint service in nature.

“You are picking from an elite crop, and they are all capable,” Leaf said, “but the value of bringing in an officer from another serv­ice is you are bringing different perspectives — a new look at old problems.”

Prior to coming to Pacific Air Forces in 2016, O’Shaugh­nessy was deputy commander of U.S. Forces Korea. As part of O’Shaughnessy’s current role, he is the “area air defense commander” and responsible for integrating all air defense efforts in the Pacific theater.

Pacific Air Forces did not comment about O’Shaughnessy’s candidacy.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran and Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, are also mentioned as possible replacements for Harris.

Australia, meanwhile, has been frustrated that the United States has not had an ambassador to that country since September 2016.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, a subsidiary of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he has “no special insights” as to Harris’ future.

“I can tell you that all the folks in Australia that I deal with, primarily the security community, are delighted with the prospect of Adm. Harris going there,” Cossa said. “While some have been grumbling about not having a U.S. ambassador yet, they all believe Harry would be well worth waiting for.”

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© 2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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