At the same time the Pentagon announced big budget cuts yesterday, the head of the U.S. military in the Pacific said that "Hawaii is of extreme strategic importance" to the United States because of its mid-Pacific location facing Asia — the "economic engine for the rest of the world."
Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, in charge of U.S. Pacific Command headquartered at Camp Smith and 320,000 military members in the region, spoke at the 10th annual Hawaii military partnership conference organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii.
Willard told the group of about 300 business leaders that he could not stick around because he had a video conference scheduled with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss a military global posture review.
"The first area in which the secretary desires to focus is on the Asia-Pacific (region)," Willard said. "We’ll be discussing Pacific Command’s vision for a future posture that is an improved posture in the region — not a lessening posture by any means, but rather a reorienting of some of our forces."
The top brass in Hawaii representing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard forces and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead provided an update on U.S. military activity in the region.
Gates announced plans to reduce the size of the active Army and Marine Corps starting in fiscal 2015 and cancellation of some weapons systems, among other cost-cutting measures.
More than one military commander at the Hawai’i Convention Center yesterday noted the need to remain focused on Asia and the Pacific, in part because of the economic and military growth of China, whose claims in the South China Sea — where sea lanes fuel world commerce — have been of growing concern to the U.S. and its allies.
"There’s no question in my mind that the importance of this region, the Asia-Pacific region and in particular Hawaii, and the vital role it will play in the future is not going to diminish," said Roughead, the keynote speaker at a luncheon following the presentations. "The legacy that is here only portends the future."
Roughead said from the Navy’s perspective, what will be seen in Hawaii "is a commitment to that future with what we are doing and what we are bringing here."
Roughead noted that the placement of three new Virginia-class attack submarines at Pearl Harbor, with more to follow, is an indication of the emphasis on the region.
The Chamber of Commerce said close to 50,000 active-duty military members and 60,000 dependents live in Hawaii, annual defense expenditures total about $6.8 billion and the military presence generates 92,000 jobs.
Willard said China remains a "main focus" of the Pacific Command.
"China and Pacific Command spend a lot of time staring at one another and studying one another and attempting to endeavor to understand one another," he said.
Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, who is in charge of U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the South China Sea has become a "critical node" that has a direct influence on the economies of countries who use it for commerce.
"With one more ship or one more dollar, where would you put it? What would you be concerned about?" Walsh said. "I would be concerned about freedom of navigation that can no longer simply be taken for granted. That’s the lesson learned from piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa."
Lt. Gen. Benjamin "Randy" Mixon, head of the U.S. Army in the Pacific and headquartered at Fort Shafter, said the Army is looking at shifting Makua Valley away from its past use as an intensive live-fire training facility and bringing in "more relevant" training focused on roadside bomb detection.
Due to a lawsuit, there has been no live-fire training in Makua Valley since 2004.
Another focus would be unmanned aerial vehicle training using Makua, which has unrestricted airspace, Mixon said. In conjunction with those changes, the Army is planning to move some live-fire training to new facilities it would build at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.