Joint Base Lewis-McChord Playing Big Role in Army's Pacific Pivot

Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, and Indian Army troops with the Kumaon Regiment's 6th Battalion stand during the opening ceremony of Yudh Abhyas 15 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Sept. 9. Sgt. Sinthia Rosario/Army
Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, and Indian Army troops with the Kumaon Regiment's 6th Battalion stand during the opening ceremony of Yudh Abhyas 15 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Sept. 9. Sgt. Sinthia Rosario/Army

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza repeatedly used the word "operational" to underline his view that the service's role in the rebalance of forces to the Pacific has gone well beyond the "concept" phase.

To make the point, Lanza ran down the list of operational exercises just completed or underway that he has overseen as commander of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military's only Corps assigned through U.S. Army Pacific directly to a combatant command -- U.S. Pacific Command.

In July, I Corps headquarters qualified as a Combined Force Land Component in a joint task force in the Talisman Sabre 15 exercise with Australian and New Zealand troops working out of the Gallipoli Barracks in Australia, Lanza said in an interview last Friday.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team of I Corps' 25th Infantry Division was simultaneously preparing for a three- to four-month deployment to the Pacific for joint exercises and humanitarian missions that will take them to Mongolia, Japan and South Korea. This will be the third such deployment by I Corps to the Asia-Pacific region.

"We treat this as an operational deployment in terms of how we plan, prepare and do this, and it really helps us connect up these kinds of operations with these countries," Lanza said. "We've certainly shown that it enhances jointness at all echelons from theater all the way down to company, battery, troop level."

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The brigade was scheduled to participate in Khaan Quest, a peacekeeping exercise in Mongolia; Orient Shield, which focuses on working with Japan's Self-Defense Forces on ways to regain ground after an invasion; and an exercise in South Korea that has yet to be named.

In addition, Lanza pointed to the 150 Indian army troops currently engaged at the base in Washington state as part of an exercise called Yudh Abhyas (Hindi for "Training For War"), solidifying the Army's relationship with the Indian military going back 11 years. Separately, about 400 Japanese troops are also currently training at JBLM, Lanza said.

The operations tempo for I Corps and the boost in the number of troops coming under USARPAC has tended to offset much of the initial skepticism that greeted the "Pacific Pathways" plan for the Army in the Asia-Pacific region, traditionally considered the bailiwick of the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Critics scoffed that even the fuel lines on Navy ships were incompatible with Army helicopters and think tanks questioned whether the Pentagon would remain committed to the National Defense Strategy of shifting 60 percent of forces to the Pacific amid continuing crises in the Mideast and new threats from Russia.

To signal its long-range intent, the Army raised the profile of USARPAC from a three-star to a four-star billet. When Gen. Vincent Brooks took over in 2013 at USARPAC headquarters at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, he was the first four-star in that assignment since 1974.

At the Brookings Institute in the spring, Brooks was upbeat about the future of Pacific Pathways and the rebalance as a whole. He noted that the number of troops committed to USARPAC has grown from 80,000 to more than 100,000 since he took command.

"It does create a clear expression of our commitment," he said. "So the rebalance is a policy commitment, a strategic commitment." Still, "our friends in the region still look for evidence," he said.

Countries in the region are constantly asking and telling him, "Where are you? We want to see you. We want to see you more," Brooks said. "Pacific Pathways lets us do that."

He described the goal as "to be there, to interact with the countries in the region, and to do it on a sustained basis where we not only build our own readiness, but we increase the capacity of our friends in the region and have a greater persistence."

Brooks added, "That doesn't have to be threatening to China. It needs to be explained to China, just like the entire approach to rebalance is often a question we get from the Chinese."

Navy Adm. Harry Harris, who took command at PACOM in May, has also stressed the Army's role in the overall rebalance.

In a visit last month to the Army's 130th Engineer Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, in Hawaii, Harris said that the service "has gone a long way in growing important relationships throughout the area of responsibility."

Harris said that the Army in the Pacific has been "executing and supporting a wide variety of missions, from overseeing and executing military construction, providing host nation-funded construction, constructing facilities support to foreign military sales and responding quickly and effectively to humanitarian aid and disaster relief events in the region."

The Marines were also officially on board with the Army's role, which critics had charged was a costly and unnecessary duplication of what the Marine Corps already does.

At a Surface Navy Association symposium last year, Marine Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant, said, "You could put all the soldiers, all the airmen, all the sailors, all the Marines out there and we still wouldn't cover it" in the vastness of the Pacific. "So do I feel threatened? Absolutely not. Is there a place for all of us? Absolutely."

For Lanza, the expanded mission for I Corps and JBLM enhanced the advantages of the base near Tacoma. Of the 41,000 troops on the base, about 6,000 are airmen.

The C-17 Globemasters of the 62nd Airlift Wing give I Corps ready access to the Pacific region, as do the deep water ports of Tacoma, Olympia and Seattle.

Other I Corps units include the 7th Infantry Division; the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command; the 25th Infantry Division; I Corps Forward in Japan; and U.S. Army Alaska, with its two combat brigades at Fort Wainwright and in Anchorage.

Lanza said I Corps was in good shape currently on readiness. "We can do what the nation asks us to do," he said, but echoed the concerns of other Army leaders on projected budget cuts and a potential drawdown of Army troop strength to 420,000 in 2017. "That perhaps could be a challenge in the future," he said.

For now, he was focused on the opportunities offered by the presence of an Indian army unit for the first time at JBLM. The 150 Indian soldiers from the 9th Independent Mountain Brigade Group were working with troops of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division.

"We have learned a tremendous amount from them" on jointness, operating at high altitude and in developing soldier-to-soldier relationships, Lanza said.

In a Facebook posting, Sgt. Curtis Hulstine said after a live-fire exercise of his Indian counterparts that "they're very competent" and "I like being able to shoot different weapons than I'm used to. Just to be able to hang out with them, speak to them and try to understand what's going on, it's pretty good, it's pretty fun."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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