March 10, 2006
The "Tyranny of Distance" in Pacific Command Operations

By Richard Halloran

The U.S. Pacific Command is recasting the posture of its military forces in the western Pacific and Asia with the new pivot point to be a robust base on the island of Guam and with the operative watchword having already become "flexibility."

"Look at a map," said the command’s leader, Admiral William J. Fallon, as he flew toward Guam after a week-long trek through Southeast Asia. He pointed to the relatively short distances from Guam to South Korea, the Taiwan Strait across which China and Taiwan confront one another, and Southeast Asia, the frontier of terror in Asia.

U.S. officers often talk about the "tyranny of distance" in the Pacific Command’s area of operations, which runs from the west coast of North America to the east coast of Africa. Guam, when it is fully operational, will provide a base for land, naval, and air forces closer to targets than for forces on the U.S. mainland or Hawaii. Guam was a major air base during the war in Vietnam.

A genuine advantage, Fallon said, was that "Guam is American territory." The island does not have the political restrictions, such as those in South Korea, that could impede U.S. military moves in an emergency. President Roh Moo Hyun, who has repeatedly taken an anti-American stance, has suggested that U.S. forces could not be deployed from Korea without his government’s approval.

In an interview on his airplane and in Congressional testimony this week, the admiral emphasized the vital role that Japan would continue to play in U.S. strategy. "The U.S.-Japan alliance remains the most important pact in the Pacific," he said. Even so, depending on what sort of government is in power in Tokyo, there could be political complications in deploying forces elsewhere from Japan.

The disadvantage to Guam is the rundown state of the island’s infrastructure, meaning roads, the electrical system, the water supply, piers, and airfield runways. "I want that infrastructure fixed," Fallon said. One runway at Andersen Air Force Base has already been torn up prior to rebuilding it. Guam is vulnerable to typhoons and should have its power lines buried, Fallon said.

Fallon said he saw the island as primarily a staging area through which troops, ships, and planes would surge toward contingencies in Asia. The island’s maintenance and repair capacity would be refurbished and expanded so that aircraft carriers, for instance, could be serviced without having to return to home ports on the West Coast.

What all this will cost and whether Congress will provide sufficient funds has yet to be determined.

About 7000 Marines, including the headquarters of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, would go to Guam from the Japanese island of Okinawa where friction between Marines and Okinawans has been constant. Three fast-attack submarines are based at Guam now and two more will be assigned there. Squadrons of B-1 bombers are rotated through Guam from the U.S. for several months at a time.

On realigning U.S. forces in Japan, American and Japanese officials have been putting the finishing touches on an agreement due to be completed by the end of March. It was to include a new U.S. Army headquarters alongside a Japanese Ground Defense Force headquarters at Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo, and a similar arrangement for air force units at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo.

Japan has already agreed that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will replace the Kitty Hawk, driven by conventional steam turbines, in Yokosuka in 2008. Kitty Hawk is to be retired for age.

Throughout the discussion of his vision for positioning forces in the Asia-Pacific region, Fallon emphasized "flexibility." "We need to have forces ready to react," he said. "We must have built-in flexibility" to meet emergencies, including disaster relief and other humanitarian operations.

He underscored that when he flew by helicopter from Clark Field north of Manila in the Philippines to the amphibious assault ship Essex at sea to thank the Marines and sailors aboard for their efforts in trying to rescue victims of the giant mudslide on the island of Leyte.

"You responded magnificently with great speed, agility, demonstrating flexibility in shifting your priority focus," he told sailors and Marines assembled on the flight deck. They had started an exercise in the Philippines before taking on the relief work.

In Congressional testimony, Fallon expanded on that theme: "Forward deployed forces, ready for immediate employment, send an unambiguous signal of undiminished U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific area. Agile and responsive global forces also act to deter aggression."

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, writes from Honolulu. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

Richard Halloran

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