Pacific Refocus Means More Multi-nation Exercises

Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, commander of U.S. Army Pacific

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - The leader of U.S. Army forces in Asia and the Pacific says his soldiers will be able to conduct more exercises with other nations in the region, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and the military refocuses its attention.

Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, said he'd like U.S. soldiers to undertake more exercises with counterparts from nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

The Army will also be able to have more active duty soldiers, instead of reserves, participate in exercises with allies such as Japan.

"We've been engaged, obviously, in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that's where we've had to focus - for all the right reasons," Wiercinski told The Associated Press in an interview at his headquarters in Hawaii. "But now that we're having this opportunity, we can get back into the Pacific with our partners here."

The Army has 70,000 soldiers and 12,000 civilians at installations in the Asia-Pacific region.

U.S. military leaders and diplomats have increasingly emphasized the importance of Asia and the Pacific as the region's economies grow and gain clout.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed last week that the U.S. pivot to the Pacific isn't aimed at containing or threatening China, which now has the world's second-largest economy after the U.S. But Washington has criticized China for lacking transparency while it has rapidly modernized its military and boosted military spending.

The Pentagon in January issued a new national defense strategy declaring that the U.S. would "rebalance" toward the region, noting U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the area.

Examples of the strategy are slowly emerging.

Last year, the U.S. and Australia announced an agreement for up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to rotate through a joint military training hub in the northern Australia city of Darwin. The Navy next year plans to begin deploying a littoral combat ship - a new type of vessel that can operate closer to shore than other ships - to Singapore.

The Air Force, meanwhile, plans to make greater use of airfields and bombing ranges in the Australian Outback.

Wiercinski said the Army doesn't want to set up new bases. Instead, he spoke of soldiers training with other nations to get a feel for cultures, terrain and interaction with U.S. allies.

"We're not talking about putting bases in other countries or a permanent presence anywhere," he said. "We're talking about rotating - 30, 40 days at a pop."

Wiercinski pointed to the current deployment of a few dozen soldiers to Tonga for a weeklong disaster relief exercise as the type of drill likely to become more prevalent.

In the drill, which also involves Australia, France and New Zealand, Tonga calls the U.S. for help after being hit by a major earthquake and tsunami. The Army sends soldiers to the Pacific island nation within 24 hours to assess the situation and report what help Tonga needs.

"Just that, the ability to do that, demonstrates our capability, shows the Tongan government and all the neighbors in the area that we're backing up what we say we can do," Wiercinski said.

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