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Diplomacy in Action

Asia-Pacific U.S. Military Overview

Admiral Robert Willard, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
Washington, DC
January 27, 2012

11:00 A.M., EST


MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today, we have Admiral Willard, the U.S. Pacific Command commander here to deliver an Asia-Pacific military overview briefing. Without further ado, here’s the admiral.

ADM WILLARD: Thank you, Andy. Good morning, everyone, and as we say in Hawaii, aloha. It’s always a pleasure to be back. This is – has become a somewhat frequent stop, and it’s at a very important, I think, time in the world’s history with so much ongoing and so many varying places. It’s a pivotal time, I think, for the U.S. military, and I’ll talk just a moment about that. And it’s certainly a challenging time and will remain challenging, we anticipate, in the Asia-Pacific region.

Just as a reminder, the responsibilities of the United States Pacific Command extend from the West Coast of the United States to the dividing line between India and Pakistan. So there is a – certainly an Asia-Pacific and Western Pacific dimension to the responsibilities that we have, but also an Indian Ocean dimension to those responsibilities as well, and as we all know, there are many challenges in South Asia that our allies and partners throughout the Asia-Pacific region work with us in helping to provide security there and to deal with those challenges. And I think it’s important to keep the balance between the Pacific and Indian Oceans in perspective as, in this global environment, there is more and more interaction occurring as we – depending on where we’re talking about in the world.

The challenges that Pacific Command has faced in the two and a half years that I’ve been in command have evolved, but by and large, they remain the same challenges. The last time I was here, we were talking about the challenge of North Korea and the prospect of succession. As I talk to you today, succession has occurred or is occurring, and we have a different leader in place in Pyongyang. We have continued to try to work very closely with China and manage the relationship that, as we all know, is vital to the region, but also vital to both of our nations. And at the strategic level, the dialogue has continued. Taiwan has undergone elections, and President Ma will now commence a second term, and we have changes in leadership occurring in Beijing in 2012, South Korea in 2012, and the United States will face its own national election in 2012. So it’s always dynamic.

I know that you may have questions regarding what is ongoing in Washington today, which is the annual budget submission has occurred, and I know there are great many questions as we look at that budget and the strategic priorities that were announced a couple of weeks ago by our President, Secretary Panetta, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Dempsey]. What I would offer in introduction in that regard is that the regional combatant commanders, like myself, have been part of this process. Each month for the past several months, we have joined here in Washington to discuss the strategic way ahead for the nation given the fact that we are ending two wars in coming years, and as you know, the budgetary process is always very long and views into out years, and it’s been a very important time to reassess the strategic circumstances that we face around the globe and to try and view those into the future and then to adapt the U.S. military to that security environment.

I have felt privileged to be part of that dialogue. We’ve had closed sessions with Secretary Panetta. We’ve had closed sessions together with the President to discuss the strategic framework that they unveiled and the priorities within that framework. As you know, the Asia-Pacific region is prominent in that discussion and – which I think is about right. And there are many aspects of the strategic priorities and that strategic framework that I think are important to understand. It’s hanging on the web, and if you haven’t read it, I would encourage that you read it and endeavor to understand it, and we’ll continue try and explain it as time goes by. But it was an inclusive process that, in my experience, was rather unusual and very well received by those of us in uniform that have geographic responsibilities in the U.S. military. And with that, I’ll stop and look forward to your questions.

QUESTION: Good morning, Admiral. My name is Chi-dong Lee from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. Let me ask you a couple of questions. Regarding the (inaudible) as you know, there are around 20,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea, mostly ground troops. Do you think there will be any change to the number of the troops, I mean, whether increase or decrease? And any change to the role or mission of the troops?

And second part of my question is about North Korea. Like you said, North Korea has a new leadership. What’s your assessment of the power transition and the new leadership? Thank you.

ADM WILLARD: Yeah. Thanks. The numbers of troops that have been stationed in the Republic of Korea have been a longstanding source of discussion and dialogue between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The agreement is for roughly 30,000 or so U.S. troops to be stationed there as – in executing our part of a very strong alliance generally facing north, but also with an understanding that those troops are there with the region in mind, and I don’t anticipate that there will be changes that are significant associated with the new – this strategic rollout. But the dialogue between the United States and Seoul that has always been ongoing and that, frankly, I participate in each year that are the necessary steps to properly manage our alliance and to view into the security environment and ensure that we’ve got the numbers of troops there and the conditions under which they’re being employed correct will continue to be ongoing.

Insofar as the succession in the north, we’re all watching this very closely. Kim Jong-il died abruptly, and this young man that has assumed power, Kim Jong-un, is relatively untested and has a lot to face in terms of governance of North Korea with all of the challenges attendant to it and what has been a rather coercive approach to the region and the world by his father. And I think many of us are both watching to ensure the ongoing stability, which is our principle interest on the Korean Peninsula and to determine that succession continues to proceed smoothly. Thus far, North Korea has entered into its winter training cycle. The training that has been ongoing and the exercise series in the Republic of Korea has been nominal and, by and large, in accordance with our annual schedule. So right now, I think the world is watching North Korea and with anticipation as they begin to reveal whether the strategies of Kim Jong-il will be – will continue or not.

QUESTION: My name is Ichiro Kabasawa with NHK Japanese Public TV. I have question about Global Hawk [an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) produced by Northrop Grumman]. Yesterday, Secretary Carter said on the program of Global Hawk Block 30 will be eliminated. You have a Global Hawk in Guam. Does that mean you won’t be able to operate your Global Hawk anymore?

And another question is: U.S. allies such as South Korea are seeking to buy Global Hawk. Is Global Hawk still available for U.S. allies in the region? Thank you.

ADM WILLARD: Thank you. We do have a Global Hawk operating, as you suggested, in the Western Pacific right now, and it’s served us very well. In fact, during the Japan disaster, and particularly related to the status of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but broadly the conditions along the coastline in northern Honshu that had undergone the severe earthquakes and tsunamis, Global Hawk was a key factor in providing imagery and assistance to us and to the Japanese with regard to the status there. So Global Hawk is flying, and we are continuing to test its capabilities in the region, and it’s serving us very well.

The decisions that will be made regarding specific blocks of Global Hawk, recognizing that as we have purchased Global Hawk, we similarly handle most of our aircraft purchases, and that is we typically buy a baseline block, and then over time, we upgrade that baseline with improved combat systems, with improved sensors and so on. In the case of Global Hawk, this is both in terms of its fly-ability and in terms of the sensor capabilities that different blocks of Global Hawk connote. And decisions that we would make to limit or terminate a particular block of any aircraft is generally determined by whether or not – what is being achieved by the – by examining what is to be incorporated in that block is both cost effective and serving our needs. So without getting into the details of the actual acquisition program for Global Hawk, the short answer to our question is: It will not affect the availability or the utility of Global Hawk. It’s merely viewing into what – where in the Global Hawk program we’re achieving success and where we may not be.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon, sir. [Shehabuddin Kisslu, BanglaNews24, Bangladesh]As – despite recent remarks by Secretary Panetta on troop cuts and budget cuts, he actually given hints that they were going to improve activities in South (inaudible) – Southeast Asia. In that regard, would you kindly say, as you have mentioned about India and Pakistan, how important it is for you that the strategic partnership with Bangladesh?

ADM WILLARD: Yeah. Thank you for that question. Strategic partnership with Bangladesh is very, very important, Bangladesh not only as a key partner to the U.S. and a key player within the South Asia region, with very close ties to India and levels of cooperation that I think in the past two years with India have been unprecedented, progress in counter-terror, and continued work within Bangladesh and, frankly, we participate in this with regard to its resiliency to deal the natural disasters that have become so predictable as the cyclone seasons swing through the Bay of Bengal and threaten Bangladesh. So our relationship with Bangladesh is a very important one, both from the standpoint of security in South Asia and particularly as it relates to the work that we do together to counter violent extremist organizations, but also as a prominent player throughout Southeast Asia in the region cooperating on the overall security there. So thank you for the question. We don’t often enough discuss Bangladesh in these forums.

QUESTION: Nina Donaghy, CCTV- Central China Television. Admiral, can you give me an update on the discussions you’ve been having with the Philippines?

ADM WILLARD: The Philippines and the U.S., as you know, are longstanding allies and partners. We conduct annual military-to-military talks that I lead every year. In fact, this year – or last year, sorry – Happy New Year, by the way, to everyone – (laughter) – last year, they were held in Hawaii. The year prior to that, we held them – they were held in Manila. So every year, there are mil-to-mil talks regarding the future of the alliance and the work that we do together as partners in the region to contribute to the security not only in the very large and complex archipelago in the Philippines and dealing with some of the Philippines issues that are challenging them, particularly in the south, but also contributing more broadly to the region.

Now there are strategic level dialogues ongoing, and this too is episodic. So this is the Department of Defense coming together with the Ministry of Defense counterparts and discussing the alliance and levels of cooperation between the United States and the Philippines that have been ongoing. And for a long time, we’ve been working closely with the armed forces of the Philippines to seek a broader balance in capabilities within the Philippines, recognizing that issues such as maritime security and stability all across a very complex archipelago is as important as the army-centric nature of counterinsurgency and counter-terror work that has been ongoing.

And President Aquino has been very open to this dialogue. So I think we have a very rich dialogue ongoing now at the strategic level between DOD and the Ministry of – or the defense minister of the Philippines, and we are discussing how to help the Philippines become more self-sufficient, and certainly how to partner more effectively between our militaries.

QUESTION: Can I ask specifically about Subic Bay? Is there any likelihood that the U.S. could renew its relationship with the Philippines to the extent that it could use Subic Bay again?

ADM WILLARD: We visit Subic Bay now, and have for many years. In fact, when I was the 7th Fleet commander, I visited Subic Bay in – within the 7th Fleet flagship. So it’s been an area where we have continued to visit into the Philippines, and it – when you ask that question, you go back to Subic Bay in the 1980s, and at its very height, and it was cooperative base within the Philippines. And there is no desire nor view right now that the U.S. is seeking basing options anywhere in the Asia Pacific theater. Rather, as the Pacific Command commander, as I look at where the forces are and where they need to be present day to day, we are biased in Northeast Asia. And when we look at Southeast Asia and South Asia, the pressure is on Pacific Command to deploy and sustain forces there day to day.

So initiatives such as Australia offered, or such as Singapore offered, to allow us to rotate forces from locations that are closer and more adjacent to Southeast Asia affords Pacific Command the opportunity to more conveniently have its presence there and felt, and not rely so terribly much on sustainment at great cost in the region. So we would welcome discussions with the Philippines along those lines, but there’s no aspiration for bases in Southeast Asia.

QUESTION: [Josefina Ilustre, Malaya, Philippines] Thank you so much, and thank you for coming back because of the timely issue on maritime security and (inaudible) defense. You mentioned something about the Philippines going on, but there are no specifics. So I’d like to ask: What, more or less, is the timeframe regarding the delivery of the third Coast Guard cutter or the F-16s?

ADM WILLARD: Yeah. I’m – I will stay away from those kind of tactical level specifics, for two reasons. One, my role in our relationship with the Philippines is at a more theater strategic level and in assisting the Department of Defense in approaching the Philippines with regard to broader Asia Pacific and Western Pacific security in mind. And we by and large leave it to the mil-to-mil discussions to determine the specific needs and requests that may be exchanged between our governments. My staff plays a role in that, but that’s not where we tend – I would tend to focus.

That said, the ex-Hamilton, the Coast Guard cutter that the Philippines recently took possession of, is serving them well, and there is interest expressed that other excess defense articles such as an additional Coast Guard cutter might come to the Philippines. That is a broader discussion, frankly, within the Pentagon with regard to where excess defense articles are, and who around the world are requesting them. And it becomes a prioritization issue.

So those discussions with the Philippines and with others will continue to be ongoing. We are interested in the Philippines and in a maritime sense becoming increasingly self-sufficient, and we’ll help where we can. But I would avoid going to individual units or tight model series of ships or aircraft in that discussion.

QUESTION: Thank you. Betty Lin of The World Journal. Could you talk about the A2/AD [Anti-Access / Area-Denial] challenges in your AOR [area of responsibility], and how you are addressing those? And also, how are you going to advise your successor in dealing with China? And do you plan to go to China before you step down?

ADM WILLARD: Yeah, thank you. The – a very good question. [Anti-Access / Area-Denial] A2/AD has been discussed in here many times before, and obviously is a focus of discussion globally, I think, as it relates to how the security around the world is sort of shifting in terms of sense. And an important part of that answer is to say that while anti-access area denial capabilities exist in the Asia Pacific theater and are an issue that I have to deal with, it is not exclusive to the Asia Pacific theater. So this is a matter of the U.S. military and other militaries having to view into area denial capabilities that are proliferating elsewhere in the world. And we all are challenged with how you – how do you deal with that, how do you think about it.

Another part to that – to the answer to your question has to do with the capabilities themselves, which are a confluence of individual capabilities that, through various domains, whether we’re talking air or surface or on the land or under the sea, endeavor to deny battle space or an area to other countries. The challenge in any nation creating those kind of area denial capabilities and packaging them in a way that appears to deny space, especially international airspace and international maritime space, to others is it will generate a degree of uncertainty and discomfort in the region and, frankly, with the United States that have interests there. So let’s examine just for a moment the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea areas, which are broad maritime spaces, carry vast amounts of commerce that are vital to the Asia Pacific region and vital to the United States – in the South China Sea alone, $5.3 trillion of bilateral annual trade, $1.2 trillion of which is U.S. bilateral trade.

So the presence of foreign militaries that are guarding that vast amount of commerce and guarding that vast maritime area against a variety of transnational threats, their presence there is vital. And the fact that area denial capabilities would reside there is discomforting. And I think that as we think about A2AD wherever it is in the world, we have to think about the veiled or not so veiled threat that that poses to regional neighbors, given their interests in the maritime and air domains, and the fact that those areas are vital to the commerce, the security, and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Alex Osipov of Israeli News in Russian language [Novosty Nedeli]. Presence of Russia and the Russian interests in Ocean Pacific region are huge. Do you have any strategy of partnership with your Russian colleagues? Which communication channels may be used?

ADM WILLARD: That’s a great question. U.S. Pacific Command shares responsibility for a military engagement relationship with Russia, and we coordinate that through our European commanders staff because, by and large, all the requests to engage with our Russian counterparts occurs in Moscow.

Throughout my career, on and off, post-Cold War in particular, we have had relationships that have been warming or otherwise with our Russia counterparts, and we are encouraged to improve the military relationship where we can. And so while it’s been – we occasionally put a ship in Vladivostok or we occasionally conduct a visit or we host a visit by Russian ships, which recently occurred, or occurred last year, as the Russians pushed one of their cruisers across the Pacific and it, I think, visited San Francisco. While we have those minor exchanges, we are seeking something broader.

And we were making progress years ago, before the Georgia conflict occurred, when, in fact, we took a step backward in military relations. And we’ve been trying to inch forward ever since. I was in Mongolia a couple of months ago, and a Russian counterpart from the general staff in Moscow was their representative there, and he and I held discussions together. So we’re looking for opportunities to improve our relationship with our Russian counterparts and welcome those opportunities. And again, my responsibility is to coordinate those for the Pacific theater Russian military forces with the European Command.

QUESTION: Thanks. Yongjian De from China News Service. I have a question about the military-to-military relations between U.S. and China. What do you think of the current relationship between (inaudible) countries? And since the U.S. new defense strategy has decided to increase its presence in the Asia Pacific area, do you think this relationship will be affected by that decision? Thanks.

ADM WILLARD: Yeah, thank you. The military relationship with China has been carried on throughout 2011, and now into 2012, at a strategic level. So that was the Strategic Security Dialogue that occurred inside the Strategic and Economic Summit that – last year. It was the Defense Consultative Talks that occurred between the Department of Defense and Russia’s Ministry of Defense in Beijing in the latter part of the year, I think in December. And as you know, that coincides – that has coincided with a series of high-level visits both on the military side and the civilian side. And we’re looking forward to Vice President Xi’s visit to Washington next month. And security matters are intermingled throughout.

So the military relationship at that strategic level has been, I would say, sustaining itself. Advancing the military relationship in other ways at the operational and tactical levels – getting our two militaries more acquainted with one another through operations or through counterpart visits – has not advanced. So there are – and part of that is a difference in philosophy regarding what mil-to-mil should consist of between our two countries, and part of it is the trust factor, and part of it is what China views as impediments to advancing the military relationship. All of those challenges need to be worked through, and we use the strategic level dialogue to, hopefully, do that.

So I would say there is potential there. And I am gratified that at the strategic level the dialogue has persisted. I am not satisfied that the military relationship is where it needs to be.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for one final question.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Stan de Saint Hippolyte with French TV News Channel and France 24. This is a follow-up to the last question. President Obama announced an increasing military presence in Australia. Now there are talks about Philippines. All observers tell about those increasing as aimed against China military growing presence. What do you make of these comments? And is there any link about this question about Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma? Some observers told that it was also linked to China’s military growing presence.

ADM WILLARD: It doesn’t surprise me that that’s part of the area of speculation. We view into the open-source media, state-run media, both Mandarin and English in China, and there’s a great deal of speculation in China and a sense in China that virtually anything that Pacific Command does or anything that the United States does in the region has a China dimension to it.

I would revert back to the answer to an earlier question. When I talk about posture, some of this happens to be, from a timeline standpoint, coincident. But if you’ll recall, after the last Quadrennial Defense Review, Secretary Gates ordered a Global Posture Review to be conducted by all the geographic combatant commanders in the Department of Defense. I participated in that and provided my answers back to Secretary Gates and now Secretary Panetta regarding the posture that we believe would best suit United States security interests and national interests throughout the Asia Pacific region. It has South Asia dimensions to it. It has Southeast Asia dimensions to it. It has Oceania dimensions to it. And by and large, it regards that we are biased in Northeast Asia and we are decremented in terms of any presence capabilities in Southeast Asia and South Asia, which puts a premium on deploying and sustaining forces at high cost to me.

So the idea – and frankly, Australia came forward to the United States and made an overture that we could participate in increased exercise series and leverage some of the force structure that they have throughout Australia. And frankly, in viewing where that would serve U.S. national interests best, it was our contribution to the overall security issues in Southeast Asia and the fact that Darwin is proximate. So the idea that we could not only leverage some pretty good basing facilities with rotational forces working with the Australian Defense Forces in northern Australia, but that during the wet season or otherwise, they could range into Southeast Asia and conduct the exercises and engagement that we’re committed to. So I’ll have the Marines there engaging regardless; it’s just much more convenient and cost-effective to have them rotating in and out of Darwin to do it.

So there is certainly emphasis on the Asia Pacific, and I’ll use this as a wrap-up. I mean, certainly emphasis in the strategic priorities that were expressed by the President and the Secretary of Defense that has been couched in – by journalists as the pivot to the Asia Pacific. Part of this is the natural redistribution of force structure as we come out of two wars. Part of it is, in the strategic design that we worked with Secretary Panetta and the President on, we were trying to imagine where in the world the equities are greatest from a security standpoint for all of us. And there’s no question, given the economic import, the very complex nature of the Asia Pacific theater, whether we’re talking South Asia, Southeast Asia, or Northeast Asia or Oceania, that there is tremendous and vital national interests there. And after all, we have five treaty allies and many strategic partners there, and we all are all relying on one another.

And for countries like China, we’re trying to improve those relations, government-to-government and military-to-military, to the extent we can. And we have a lot of work to do to get it right. But the interest by Pacific Command and the interest from the United States is that this be a secure and stable and prosperous region of the world.

And if I could give you the future vision of the military relationships in the region, we would all be constructive partners contributing to that security. That’s the goal of Pacific Command. It’s the charter I’m given. And if I’m unable to effectively advance military relations with any country, then that’s a challenge that I must correct.

So as I pass on the mantle of Pacific Command to a next commander in coming months, we’ll have that conversation – his responsibility to our nation that he bears to improve these military relations, his responsibility to make our laydown in the Asia Pacific region as cost-effective and as effective from the standpoint of contributing to security as it can possibly be, which is, after all, what the geographic combatant commands are there for.

So thank you again for this opportunity to join you here. And I think it’s about my sixth time in this room. I always find your questions probing and informed, and this has always been one of my favorite stops when I’m visiting Washington, D.C. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.

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