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Army sees its future in Pacific training grounds

Range Qualification and Training at Pohakuloa Training Area (Staff Sgt. Thomas Calvert/US Army)

“I’m not entirely sure what ‘it’ is, but this ain’t it, ” quipped a member of the U.S. Army’s Oahu-based 25th Infantry Division as he and his fellow soldiers marched up the road at the Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island last week.

“I’m not entirely sure what ‘it’ is, but this ain’t it, ” quipped a member of the U.S. Army’s Oahu-based 25th Infantry Division as he and his fellow soldiers marched up the road at the Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island last week. They carried heavy rucksacks and body armor marching under the unforgiving sun into higher elevations where at night they would endure cold wind and rain as well as thinner air as they carried their heavy loads.

The training is part of — the U.S. Army Pacific’s new Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, a series of ranges and training the serv ­ice is hosting in Hawaii and Alaska—as well as annually in rotating countries across the region.

In Hawaii, 6, 350 soldiers have been training since late October. In addition to Poha ­kuloa, troops in the islands also have been at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai and at Bellows Air Force Station, Dillingham Army Airfield, the Kahuku Training Area, Kawailoa mountain ranges, Helemano Plantation and Schofield Barracks’ East and South ranges on Oahu for the Hawaii portion of JPMRC 2022.

Soldiers in Hawaii and Alaska used to ship out to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., or Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., to recertify their skills to prove they are deployment-ready. The Army launched JPMRC as an alternative to save money on transportation while also keeping its Pacific troops in the regions they’re expected to operate in as the Pentagon revamps its Indo-Pacific policies.

The Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard also have played a role in the exercise. Hawaii is one of the few places where each branch has a presence for training.

Operating forces in multiple locations throughout the island chain is a challenge as troops train and try to get supplies and resources to the various training grounds. Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, the commanding general of the 25th, said that “causes exactly the intended effects ” as it forces commanders to make “lot of tough decision-making.”

This year the 25th Infantry is joined by troops from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The 25th has been training in exercises in all three countries through the Army’s Pacific Pathways program. Ryan said that it has “grown out of exercises that we’re doing right there in theater with them. … I’ve been out in the theater in each of those three countries, and they express an incredible desire to come here and train alongside us.”

Sgt. Derek Smith, a soldier based at Schofield, participated in a simulated battle at Pohakuloa as a member of the “opposing force ” against “blue forces ” representing the U.S. and its allies. Last year he participated in the first JPRMC as a member of the blue forces. He said that across the different training areas in the islands the terrain is very different, forcing different approaches.

“(At Pohakuloa ) you can see miles and miles away, you can literally get on top of a berm and see the whole battlefield. It’s kind of hard to hide, ” Smith said.

Military observers from Australia, French Caledonia, Bangladesh, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand and Singapore also have come to Hawaii to watch the exercise. Ryan said that so far they have enough space to accommodate multinational training but there are limits to how many other countries can train on the islands at one time.

“We’re gonna get to the point, candidly, because of the popularity of what we’re doing here … where we’re going to have to meter this a little bit, ” he said.

The Army is in the process of negotiating the renewal of leases it has held on several areas of state-owned land that are set to expire in 2029. The negotiations come at a time when the Navy’s handling of the Red Hill water crisis on Oahu has strained relations with Hawaii leaders and residents.

“It’s not lost on me that some of this comes at a cost to people, whether it’s traffic or noise or you know, you name it, ” said Ryan. “It’s (also ) soldiers and families whose fathers and wives are away. It disrupts life.”

The U.S. government has attempted over the years to shift its foreign-policy focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific as it becomes the center of gravity for the global economy. Increased geopolitical tensions also have meant increased military interest in the region.

Much of the attention has been on maritime disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, as naval forces engage in a series of standoffs over navigation and territorial rights over key trade routes and resource deposits. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu has throughout its history been dominated by the Navy—it always has been commanded by an admiral.

But there also has been competition—and conflict—on land as well. Between May 2020 and January 2021, India and China—both nuclear powers—engaged in a series of violent border clashes in the Himalayas that resulted in dozens of soldiers killed. Beijing also has invested heavily in Southeast Asian nations—including Thailand and Indonesia—as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a series of Chinese government-­financed projects sometimes called the New Silk Road.

Army leaders in Hawaii argue that highlights the importance of armies in the region—and maintaining relationships.

“The land power network is a key component in the security architecture that helps keep the Indo-Pacific region safe, free and open, ” said Ryan. “I don’t want to say they want to hitch their wagon to us—they don’t want that, they want to maintain their sovereignty—but they want to know they’ve got a good partner in the United States of America.”

As the U.S. military shifts its focus from battling insurgencies in the Middle East, it’s preparing for the possibility of pitched battles between conventional military forces. Ryan said reports out of the war in Ukraine have informed U.S. military planners on what that might look like. Both sides in the exercise are training to use drones—and be wary of the enemies’ potential use of drones.

During the simulated fighting, casualties on both sides were high.

“We talked about the golden hour in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, getting casualties back to a higher level of care, within an hour of point of injury. It’s just not going to be realistic on a battlefield like this, ” Ryan said. “We have got to be able to sustain casualties forward with units. And that means better life-saving equipment, better training for our medical folks, and not only our medical folks, because in the end, everybody’s a first responder.”

Officials around the region have expressed concern about escalating tensions and urged Chinese and American officials to find ways to ease tensions. Ryan said that it’s his hope that diplomats will cool tensions and that the war games will remain nothing but exercises, but that it’s his responsibility to ensure his troops are ready should diplomacy fail.

“We will be the first to go, ” Ryan said. “On Dec. 7, 1941, the 25th Infantry Division had to be ready. They were right here when they were attacked at Schofield Barracks (and ) Wheeler Field. We don’t want to ever wish we could be more ready, so we have to be ready. That’s our role here.”


(c) 2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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