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Army has no plans for live fire in Makua

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 2:21 p.m. HST, Jul 31, 2011

There may be no Army live-fire training in Makua Valley for years to come, and possibly never again, the new commanding general of the U.S. Army in the Pacific said.

Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, who took over the Fort Shafter-based command in March, said he's focusing on providing replacement live-fire training for Hawaii soldiers through range improvements at Schofield Barracks and at Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island.

"I firmly believe that if those things stay on track at Schofield and PTA, we will not have to live fire in Makua," Wiercinski said in a recent interview.

Additionally, Wiercinski is putting on hold his predecessor's plan to convert Makua into a "world-class" roadside bomb and counterinsurgency training center as the Army continues to deal with litigation that has prevented live fire in the 4,190-acre Waianae Coast valley since 2004.

"I'm not going to move forward with disrupting anything or trying to add another element to this until we get the first steps done," he said. "I don't want to complicate what's already in the court system."

U.S. Army Pacific oversees issues such as Makua Valley, but also has taken on greater responsibilities across the region.

Troop levels in Alaska and Hawaii have increased as numbers have dropped in South Korea. A series of sub-commands has been added in Hawaii that has bolstered Fort Shafter's command and control role as an administrative and deployable headquarters.

In years past, U.S. Army Pacific "never really participated in exercises as a headquarters, never participated in operations as a headquarters," Wiercinski said.

It was always a service component command, meaning it did all of the administrative functions.

"For the first time in the last couple of years, it's become operationalized," Wiercinski said. "It gives (U.S. Pacific Command) an extra set of headquarters to be able to do things at a moment's notice."

In 2001, Fort Shafter had 1,194 soldier "billets," or positions, and a total population of 4,077, including families and civilian workers, officials said.

That population now stands at 6,306 military members with a total Fort Shafter census of 13,172, according to the command.

The command controls about 62,000 soldiers in the region, with the exception of South Korea, which is under its own command. There are 22,520 soldiers on active duty in Hawaii, officials said.

A Contingency Command Post was added at Fort Shafter with 96 people who can deploy and oversee small-scale operations.

The command post has deployed multiple times for exercises and helped run Balikatan 2011 in the Philippines, a humanitarian assistance and training exercise held April 5-15 involving nearly 5,000 U.S. service members.

If U.S. Pacific Command didn't have the Contingency Command Post, the United States would have had to cancel Balikatan, Wiercinski said, because many U.S. forces were redirected to help in Japan after the March earthquake and tsunami.

The 8th Theater Sustainment Command, the 311th Theater Signal Command and the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command were moved to Hawaii. In May 2010, a $21.5 million design contract was awarded for a new 330,000-square-foot command center at Fort Shafter that's still in the planning stage.

"All these commands now are enabling commands for everybody in the Pacific, and they all come under one Army service component commander (here at Fort Shafter)," Wiercinski said. "It's never been like this, with this type of uniting of command."

The Eighth Army, in Korea, is changing from a service component command to a field army, Fort Shafter will take over its administrative functions as of Oct. 1, Wiercinski said.

The Eighth Army is becoming a combat unit in a return to its Korean War-era roots.

Fort Shafter will exercise the service component command change with the Eighth Army in August.

For an increase in soldiers in Hawaii, firing ranges have been added at Schofield and a Battle Area Complex for Stryker vehicle training is expected to be completed in late 2012, officials said.

Meanwhile, a new Infantry Platoon Battle Area at PTA that could permanently replace Makua Valley might be ready for use in 2014 or 2015, the Army said.

A lot of Schofield soldiers are deployed, have just returned or are preparing for deployment, and Wiercinski is looking at options outside of Makua for live-fire training.

"Right now, I see Schofield and PTA progressing enough — and the Kahukus, for military training — progressing in a way that I don't see us right now having to live fire (in Makua) and cause people to get excited about that," he said.

Wiercinski is no stranger to Hawaii, having served as deputy commander of the 25th Infantry Division from 2005 to 2006 and deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific from 2007 to 2008.

His predecessor at Fort Shafter, Lt. Gen. Benjamin "Randy" Mixon, wanted to pursue a roadside bomb and counterinsurgency training center in Makua with simulated explosions and mock villages.

Wiercinski said he's not sure whether he'll go that route.

"I want to wait until the (deployed) soldiers get back, and I want to see how far we are with Schofield, and I want to see how far we are with PTA," he said.

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