Pentagon's Pacific pivot

Washington state may gain significant economic activity from the Pentagon's increasing pivot toward Asia.

The shift - a refocusing of people and resources to counterbalance the rising power and potential threat from China - comes as troops have largely been pulled out of Iraq and are gradually leaving Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in June the plan to remix the Navy fleet from parity between the Atlantic and Pacific, to 60 percent in the Pacific.

"Make no mistake - in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way - the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region," Panetta said.

President Barack Obama had started talking late last year about moving the nation's military and policy focus toward the Pacific. He also said that projected defense budget cuts would not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.

A study released July 28, commissioned by the Pentagon, re-emphasized that conclusion and suggested an even greater diversion of vessels to the Pacific.

While the Defense Department is facing enormous budget cuts, the new Pacific focus means that troop and equipment levels will likely stay stable in Washington or even grow, experts say.

"We'll see absolutely no diminution in U.S. government spending on bases, troops, ships. If anything, we'll see more spending in the Pacific Northwest," said Rich Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Seattle-based think tank focused on policy and strategy in the Pacific region.

The military's impact in Washington already is substantial, with a $5.1 billion payroll and another $5.2 billion in Pentagon contracts, according to a 2010 study for the Washington Economic Development Commission.

In the Puget Sound area alone, bases employ 91,000 people, far surpassing Boeing, Microsoft or any other employer. About 65 percent of those working at the bases are active-duty personnel, according to a study by the Puget Sound Regional Council that was updated in 2011.

The growing Pacific emphasis could bring to the region even more service members and their families, more contracts for regional private-sector suppliers, and more economic activity as military exercises around the Pacific Basin increase in coming years.

"When you have more exercises, you're going to have more throughput at the ports, more transportation of people and equipment," said Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of I Corps, which has responsibility for the Pacific region as well as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Brown has been the highest-ranking military officer in Washington state since he took command in July.
Brown said he expects Lewis-McChord by the middle of next year to support an annual rate of up to five major military Pacific-region exercises involving troops and ships, as well as 10 smaller exercises. Such exercises had largely stopped in recent years as attention was focused on the Middle East.

"It's significant, it's historical, we're proud to be part of this shift," Brown said. "By mid-2013, we will be in full swing, and on for however many years from there."

Washington is home to some of the most important West Coast bases:

  • Lewis-McChord features the West Coast's largest collection of Strykers, a light armored vehicle, as well as a wing of 52 Boeing-built C-17 transport jets, also the West Coast's largest fleet.
  • Naval Base Kitsap houses the West Coast's only nuclear-capable shipyard, in Bremerton, and the West Coast's only fleet of missile and attack submarines, at Bangor.
  • Naval Station Everett is the nation's newest Navy base, opened in 1992, with the aircraft carrier Nimitz home-ported there, and two new destroyers expected, to replace two older frigates.

The shift in focus to China is unique and complex, because the world's most populous nation has simultaneously become the U.S.'s second-largest trading partner (after Canada), the largest holder of U.S. debt, and a rising military threat. In recent years China has been increasingly aggressive about claiming territory in the South China Sea, launched its first aircraft carrier, and increased its array of high-tech weapons such as an anti-carrier missile and a prototype next-generation fighter.

"We have never been this interdependent and dependent, in a way, on a country that poses so much threat," said Ellings, of the Asian research bureau. "This is an unprecedented level of interdependence on a country that might be an enemy."

The U.S has been putting more energy into balancing China's power. This has been happening economically, through approval of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade agreement and negotiations toward a larger Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. It also is happening on the military side.

"China has been very aggressive in the South China Sea," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. "There's no doubt they've been building up military capacity. It's important to keep more assets in the Pacific."

With the military facing $500 billion in budget cuts over the next decade - and the possibility of that total doubling through across-the-board "sequestration" cuts that could be triggered if Congress fails to come up with a budget compromise - most observers believe military spending will either stay the same or actually go up in Washington state while it diminishes elsewhere.

There's already evidence of the latter, with new units and capability being shifted into the region.

In June, for instance, 10 Boeing-built AH-64 Apache attack helicopters arrived at Lewis-McChord from Fort Hood, Texas, and another 14 are scheduled to arrive in 2013, said Col. Gary Dangerfield, an information officer. The Apache battalion, which will be the first at Lewis-McChord, will have 500 people. In July, the Navy announced it would relocate an EA-6B Prowler squadron to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, moving four or five aircraft and more than 200 enlisted personnel from the squadron's current base in Maryland.

The Army also is reactivating the 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord. This will add a layer of direct management of the brigades at the base, allowing Brown, as commander of I Corps, to focus more of his attention on the Pacific region.
The increased level of military exercises, meanwhile, reflects the U.S. focus on moving people and equipment around the Pacific rather than building bases there.

"The rebalancing strategy of moving relatively more of our troops to Asia, or Asia Pacific, bodes pretty well for Washington state," said Rep Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

This activity also would boost Puget Sound ports, especially the Port of Tacoma, which is the terminus for a rail line directly into the Lewis-McChord base.

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