The most junior soldiers serving in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command train in more exotic locales and use more futuristic tech in their first assignments than even graying sergeants majors saw over decades-long careers.
That’s the distillation of remarks from a panel of highly placed senior noncommissioned officers in the Army who spoke on May 16 at the annual Association of the U.S. Army Land Forces Pacific Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The combination of putting junior soldiers and NCOs into a variety of exercises, the main thrust being the annual Pacific Pathways exercises, and handing them new technologies, from communications equipment to new drone and strike capabilities, continues to grow.
The program began in 2014 under then-Gen. Vincent Brooks, U.S. Army Pacific commander during the U.S. strategic “pivot” from U.S. Central Command-based operations to an Asia-focused effort. That effort was focused on moving the service away from training for the types of operations that were ubiquitous in Iraq and Afghanistan — such as striking terrorist leaders or talking with tribal elders — and toward the sorts of missions they may face in a large-scale conventional conflict, which ran range from targeting enemy ships with sophisticated drone-sensor combos to detecting social media chatter aimed planting disinformation in an ally’s elections.
What started with a brigade or less in a handful of Pacific nations for a few weeks or more has grown significantly.
In 2018, then Gen. Robert Brown announced the program would see longer duration deployments, running four to six months. That “Pacific Pathways 2.0″ version began with emplacing soldiers for a four-month rotation in Thailand, the Philippines and Palau in 2019.
Beyond the training, soldiers now have some of the new technology, such as the first long-range hypersonic weapon fielded to the 1st Multi-Domain Task Force at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington earlier this year, due largely to modernization work that’s spanned everything from new field uniforms to missiles and pocket-sized “Black Hornet” drones, in recent years.
Command Sgt. Maj. Shawn F. Carns, the senior enlisted NCO for I Corps, which oversees Army units in the Pacific and the Pacific Pathways military exercise program out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, spoke candidly about his own Army experience regarding joint and partner exercises.
“I never got that opportunity until I was a sergeant major,” Carns said.
It wasn’t until he served on separate assignments, one with Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras and the other with Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa that he had a true multinational, joint mission experience.
“I didn’t understand joint,” Carns said.
But he’s seeing that change at the lowest echelons within his own unit, I Corps.
“Now we are getting that experience to the soldier, that private, just coming out of (Advanced Individual Training) and he or she a couple of months later going over to Singapore, going over to Australia, going over to Indonesia and doing some of these exercises that are joint and multinational,” he said.
U.S. Navy Fleet Master Chief David Isom, the senior enlisted leader at INDOPACOM, had a similar observation in the same panel.
“I see NCOs strengthening our posture and building those relationships every day across the theater and it’s fantastic,” Isom said.
A real-world example came in a separate panel, held on May 18 on training for future warfare.
In that panel, Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner, commanding general of the Philippine Army, told the audience that when his country, which has been in the crosshairs of Chinese military provocations and influence operations in recent years, saw what was happening in Ukraine.
“We saw in the Ukraine-Russia conflict how effective Stingers and Javelins are when it comes to this type of land warfare,” Brawner said.
The Stinger missile is a man-portable air defense system, capable of firing from helicopters, ground vehicles and by individual users. With its infrared-homing system, it is primarily used to destroy aerial targets.
The Javelin is a surface-to-air missile that can also be vehicle-mounted or shoulder-fired, carrying three rounds. A user can fire up to two missiles a minute and the system can be used against armored targets.
Once Brawner and his colleagues saw the successes Ukrainian forces were having with these weapons, he said they requested training from the United States, even though the Philippines doesn’t have the weapon, yet.
“We want our soldiers to be able to use these weapons systems in case there is a need for us to use this weapon system even if they are not yet in our inventory,” Brawner said.
While the Stinger and Javelin are older than many of the soldiers now firing them, new tech is making its way into nearly every training exercise, officials said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Hester, the senior enlisted at Army Futures Command, said in the panel that the service has ramped up its “soldier touch points” in the development of all new gear. Those touchpoints pair soldiers, often in field settings, with scientists and engineers developing the tech to get real-world feedback as experts design the material before fielding.
Hester said the “end user feedback” helps developers understand what doesn’t work right, fit right or integrate with the existing kit a soldier must use.
In fiscal 2022 futures command held 200 soldier touchpoints, he said.
There are 250 such touchpoints that have either already happened or are scheduled for this fiscal year, he said.
Half of those integrated into current military exercises, Hester said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.