At the Pacific Council’s Members Weekend, I had the distinct honor and privilege to interview the Commanding General of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), General Robert B. Brown, on his perspective of key defense and security issues facing USARPAC in the Indo-Pacific region. Acknowledging that there is “a lot of blue” in this oceanic area of responsibility (AOR), General Brown notes that the Army would be a critical player in joint operations with the Navy and Air Force in any potential application of U.S. military power. He also highlights USARPAC’s peacetime role in strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships, a job made easier by an overwhelming majority of Asian militaries within the AOR headed by Army commanders.
According to General Brown, new U.S. assessments of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities do not change anything in the conventional domain. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would still pay a high price for any conventional military operations he takes against the South. Indeed, General Brown now believes that Kim is on the defensive, trying to discern the Trump administration’s policy on conditions for an attack, retaliatory or otherwise. This is a good thing for deterrence. Moreover, Kim’s recent nuclear and missile tests have resulted in unprecedented unity between not only the United States and its ground force allies and partners, but with the Chinese army.
The relationship with China, however, has always been politically tricky. On trips past—those in the past couple of decades—General Brown has sensed the fear and respect China had for the US military. As they have come of age as an Asian superpower, it has become increasingly clear most recently that while they still respect, they no longer fear us. General Brown highlights the importance of getting back to a state in which the United States can “fight unpredictably again” within a multi-domain concept. Achieving this, in his view, will strengthen deterrence by creating uncertainty in the minds of Chinese leaders.
Even though the U.S. Navy and Air Force continue to deal with freedom of navigation tensions with Chinese counterparts in the South China Sea, USARPAC maintains positive working relationships with the Chinese army. General Brown cites recent training in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) as an important bright spot: saving lives in the event of a natural disaster is a priority for both countries. Even though our work with China will always be competitive, we can improve that relationship by “finding things in common so we can have a dialogue to get after the differences.” General Brown contends that USARPAC has a unique role in finding those commonalities.
What follows is an exclusive interview with General Robert B. Brown.
Derek Grossman: Usually when analysts and commentators think about PACOM [United States Pacific Command], and its AOR [Area of Responsibility], they think primarily in terms of the air and naval domains, not so much about the ground domain of combat. How do you see the Army’s role in the region today and in the years to come?
General Robert B. Brown: I would tell you first and foremost, the Pacific region is more than half of the earth’s surface area. There’s a lot of blue. The Pacific is really a joint effort between all the services. It’s a multinational fight, and the Army has a key role. Seven of ten of the largest armies in the world are in the Pacific, which a lot of people don’t realize. You have 36 countries, and of those, upwards of 90 percent of their heads of the military are army. Now what difference does that make? In a lot of these countries, about three fourths of them only have an army, and some are starting to get navies, etc. So if you look at it you see a lot of blue, no question, but people live on the land. I’m not trying to say it’s an army fight, or it’s an air force fight, or it’s a navy fight. It’s a joint and multinational effort. We wouldn’t do anything alone. But the Army has a critical role.
Given new U.S. assessments about North Korea’s missile capabilities, how does that factor into your analysis of the situation and, more broadly, the Army and PACOM’s analysis?
So when you look at this scenario in Korea, our number one priority has been, and should be, what our nation asked us to do: be prepared and be ready to fight. And we’ve had some challenges: 16 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, without much time to reset, and the funding has been really difficult. I’ve been in command in some form or another since 2010, and I haven’t had a budget. As a commander, if you have a budget, you can be very efficient, effective, and spend every dime well. If you have continuing resolutions, you lose a lot of money and with that money you lose a lot of readiness.
But we made readiness our focus because Kim Jong-un being ready earlier with this capability to reach out and touch others is a black swan. That is a key aspect of working with the other services together, looking at what options we have. As we look to the future, an effective option is not being predictable. We can’t be linear and predictable, and all the services in the Pacific—the PACOM commander down to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Special Ops, even the Coast Guard—we all realize we have to work together in multiple domains.
The leading idea is multi-domain battle, where we can maneuver effectively across the air, land, sea, cyber, and space, and maneuver domains to a position of relative advantage. The good news is, part of our strategy if you will, is a focus on readiness. The next thing the Secretary of Defense asked us to do is strengthen those relationships out there where there are opportunities and continue to build those alliances. I’ve been in the Pacific for over 30 years on and off, and I’ve never seen better opportunities to strengthen relationships.
One of the good things Kim Jong-un has done is that he has brought our allies in the region—Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia—closer together.
For example, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and then some of our alliances, I’ve never seen them stronger. Of our seven mutual defense treaties, five are in the Pacific. So you have Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. Korea, Japan, and Australia in particular have never been stronger; it’s unbelievable. Kim Jong-un’s strategy and rhetoric is to pull people apart, and one of the good things he’s done is that he has brought us closer together. For example, two weeks ago, we just had the first ever Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff, ROK [Republic of Korea] Army Chief of Staff, and the U.S. Chief of Staff together in a triad for the first time ever in history in Korea. We had 30 nations there in Korea at a conference. At one point we even had the Chinese vice chief of their army with his arms locked with Korean, Japanese, and U.S. counterparts against North Korea.
How do new U.S. assessments of the North Korea threat change things in terms of deterrence, or does it change things? Because there’s been a lot of talk that yes, it does change things because now North Korea can act with impunity from a conventional perspective, or do you not see it that way?
They can act, but the consequences would be severe if they act, no question. Deterrence works when the folks you’re trying to deter believe you would act. I think we’re seeing all indications that at first he thought, ‘Ah, they’re not going to act,’ and now he’s not sure. And you can see it: he’s asking folks, ‘What is this?’ We can’t be predictable, and we’re going to need some of this ability to truly deter and show him we’re not fighting the same old fight, and so what he thinks is going to happen is not necessarily what will happen, and that’s critical, obviously. Because of security, I can’t get into a lot of specifics, but I would say the options would be devastating to him, and he’s got to know that if he wants survival, to do something rash would just be stupid.
I’m not saying it’s an easy situation. It’s very difficult, and obviously the diplomatic pressure campaign is the lead. We’re in support of that campaign. That makes perfect sense when we heard the Secretary of Defense talk about that just a few days ago when I was in D.C., and that has to be the lead—and should be the lead. I think we’re seeing that China is key to the situation, and we’re seeing them step up more than we thought. Upwards of around 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China.
Now of course Russia’s not being helpful. They’re saying, ‘We’ll take your oil, we’ll take your coal.’ They’re out anywhere, filling a void. They’re right out there in the Pacific as they are in Europe as well. But I think with China, the pressurization campaign is key, and we’re in support of that. One would hope Kim comes to his senses with the entire world telling him a couple times now, in pretty rare unanimous UN resolutions saying, ‘Stop it.’
In terms of China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, what are some of the things that you’re doing in your role at USARPAC to address that issue, and what are some of our allies and partners in the region saying about it, and what are they looking to the U.S. to provide?
There are several parts to that question. We are kind of in a unique role within Pacific Command. The Air Force and Navy have freedom of navigation issues, but in the Army we don’t have that situation. We don’t have a conflict army-to-army. So our role is to find those things in common with China so we can talk about differences. If you just focus on differences, it will lead to conflict. Competition does not need to be conflict. Who in their right mind would want to have a war with China? It’d be crazy. It would ruin the leading economies of the world.
For us in the Army, we’re in our fourteenth iteration this year of a disaster management exchange (DME) with China. Last year I was in China. We took about 500 Soldiers and leaders, they had about 500 folks, and we found something in common: humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR), where we both want to save lives. This year, it’s in Oregon, and the focus is on flooding. We’ll have academic experts talk to the Chinese leaders, then we’ll execute an actual scenario: everything from on the ground to tactically working together operationally. We also convinced them to be part of the multinational HA/DR coordination center. So they know what’s needed where. Before, they were kind of hesitant to be a part of it. Now they’re a part of it. You find things in common.
When I was over there in China, I also talked about Ebola. A few years ago the Army went over to Africa to stop the spread of Ebola. The 101st Airborne did an amazing job. China sent a medical team. They did a great job. So working together, with the 101st leading the way, and with medical folks from China, we stopped the spread of Ebola. You’ve got to look at those things in common so you can at least talk about differences.
The last time I was in China, I sensed something was different. My experience in the past was that China feared us and respected us. Today, they respect us, but they don’t fear us.
It seemed to work because when I talked to Chinese four-star leaders, a couple of their combatant command equivalents and their Chief of Staff, we talked about North Korea. Normally they ignore you. This time, however, one actually said, ‘Yes, we agree. We can’t have a nuclear North Korea. We have to work together.’ So it was significant to me. Now, the tough part about China is that they’ll say one thing and, perhaps as they have in the past, do another. Like, ‘We’re not going to militarize the South China Sea.’ Okay, great, but look at Fiery Cross Reef. It’s as militarized as you can get. That’s the frustrating part. That has their neighbors in the region scared to death. Even if they don’t say it out loud, it’s got Japan concerned, Vietnam concerned, India very concerned, all these nations.
China’s actions are encouraging other regional players to work more closely with us. China kind of shoots themselves in the foot sometimes. They’ll go in and say, ‘Here’s money, no strings attached,’ but there are strings attached. China is ready to fill those voids in out there. Like when Thailand had their coup a few years ago, and we slowed down doing things with them. We canceled our schools called International Military Education and Training (IMET), and China was right there to pick it up, right there with weapons, etc.
It is a competition, no question about it. But China has a revisionist philosophy. They want to revise the international order. As I told their senior leaders when I was there, it’s kind of ironic because they have benefited from the post-World War II, Bretton Woods, international rules and laws, and peace and prosperity in the Pacific more than anybody. Yet they want to change it and make it more favorable to their type of government. Someday we’ll probably have to negotiate—what is that new change? What does that new order look like? I would certainly be very leery of what they’re doing, and we have to always be prepared for the worst by finding things in common so we can have a dialogue to get after the differences.
In terms of a land border conflict in Asia, there’s obviously North and South Korea, but there’s also China-India, and perhaps there are others. What are your thoughts on that?
There are a bunch. Pakistan-India; Thailand’s got border issues; Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Rohingya—holy smokes, there are a lot! But no question, I believe the most likely is North Korea. That’s the one that will be difficult and the most complex of all of them. They’re all complex, but it is the most complex, no question. It will demand a multinational effort.
No one would try to tackle any of these complex issues alone. And it’s a joint effort for us. We have to continue to move from what I would call joint interdependence among the services—for example, I depend on the Air Force because I don’t have enough artillery—to joint integration. Best way to say it is that we, as a joint force, must become sensor agnostic and platform agnostic. So, a Navy P8 could pick something up and send it to the Army or Air Force or cyber.
One other thing about China: I was in China last November. I had been there several times before and dealt with them coming in our direction quite a bit as well in all the different commands and locations I’ve been in, and I sensed something was different. It took me a while to figure out what it was. My experience in the past was that China feared us and respected us. Today, they respect us, but they don’t fear us. It was pretty obvious. I kept saying, ‘What’s different?’ They’ve really gotten bold. They respect us, no question.
We’ve really shifted to working those leaders that thrive in ambiguity and chaos.
I believe if we go about preparing for the future right, if we adjust like the Department of Defense is trying to do with our requisition, and we partner with industry more effectively to support faster production, and if we fight unpredictably, they’ll fear us again. And that could be the best deterrence of all. Then my grandkids won’t have to worry about fighting China. But if we blow it and we don’t do it right, they won’t fear us and unfortunately, we’ll be dealing with this for a long time, this potential competition becoming conflict, which would be a shame.
It’s amazing how complex the world has become. I often would joke, ‘The last time I was bored was in the Cold War.’ I was a company commander, and I had a responsibility in an area against the Soviets. You know, they could have come across but you kind of knew they wouldn’t be that crazy. We had learned to fight outnumbered and win. We had almost 300,000 in Europe. We trained hard, but there was still time to get bored. I have not been bored since, and I don’t think we’ll be bored for another 50 years. The world is just so interconnected and complex. We’ve really shifted to working those leaders that thrive in ambiguity and chaos.
The good news is our whole philosophy of command leads to that mission command and empowerment, where the best ideas come from the cutting edge and those closest to the problem. We have a system of getting those great ideas unlike anybody else, because of our great noncommissioned officers and our great soldiers. We’re really proud of that. People remain our advantage. No doubt about it.
General Robert B. Brown is the Commanding General of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), located at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He covers Indo-Pacific defense and national security issues. He previously served at the Defense Intelligence Agency as the daily intelligence briefer to the Director and to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.
Read more about this year's conference at the Members Weekend 2017 website. Watch videos and read summaries of Representative Karen Bass' keynote address, the plenary on the future of automation, Jerry Green's remarks on the Iran deal, the debate about President Obama's foreign policy, and insights from other Members Weekend discussions. Check out photos from the conference on our Flickr page.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and speaker and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.