US Military Exercises from Tropics to Tundra

April 11th, 2023 - by Kevin Nodell / Star-Advertiser

Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center

Hawaii Soldiers Are Running Exercises
From the Tropics to the Tundra
Kevin Nodell / Star-AdvertiserJ

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (April 9, 2023) — For Capt. Caleb Friel, who spent his teenage years on the Big Island before joining the Army, the snow is a new challenge as he trains soldiers in Alaska for potential combat operations.

“I think a few years that I spent growing up in Tennessee at Fort Campbell when I was younger is about as much exposure to snow as I’ve had,” he admits.

Friel is a member of the 196th Infantry Brigade, the unit the Army has tasked with running training across its new Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, encompassing ranges in Hawaii and Alaska along with an “exportable” training program that takes place in a different country every year.

This year that country will be Australia.

The most recent Alaska training rotation of JPMRC with 8,000 troops is aimed at members of the Army’s newly reorganized 11th Airborne Division, certifying them for potential deployments amid increasing geopolitical tensions across the Pacific. The exercise began March 22 and is slated to wrap up Friday.

Headquartered at Fort Shafter, the 196th has troops spread across the Pacific with two battalions on Oahu, one in Alaska and another on Guam.

Brigade commander Col. Bryan Martin said Native Hawaiian and Chamorro soldiers commonly request assignments with the unit, which gives many a unique opportunity to return to the islands. Friel, a Kameha­meha Schools graduate currently assigned to the unit’s Kapolei-based 1st Battalion, said he hasn’t been back to Hawaii in years and wanted his children to experience island living and connect with family.

But though some soldiers with the 196th may be stationed closer to their families, they’re still away from home often as the Army ramps up its Pacific operations.

Friel said the brigade’s mission has evolved significantly since he joined the unit. In the past it focused on training National Guard members and reservists in the Pacific for deployments. But as Pacific tensions heat up, the 196th has become the Army’s go-to trainers in the region.

U.S. Army Pacific set up JPMRC in part to offset the cost of moving troops from Hawaii and Alaska to the Army’s other large-scale training centers in California and Louisiana. But the Army also hopes that in addition to cutting costs, JPMRC will provide better training — and it’s attracting attention from other militaries.

Last year in Hawaii, troops from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia trained with Oahu-based 25th Infantry Division troops for their JPMRC rotation. This year in Alaska, Canadian and Italian troops joined the 11th Airborne in the U.S. military’s Yukon Training Area, while military observers from Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Chile, Germany, Finland and Norway watched.

Among the visitors was Mongolian Army chief Gen. Bujiinov Amgalanbaatar.

“For the first time in nearly five decades, the Army has committed to and is developing (and) continuing to advance its premier training center for this region,” said U.S. Army Pacific commander Gen. Charles Flynn. “This keeps our forces in the region, it allows us to train in the environment and the conditions that we’re most likely to operate in (and) it allows us the opportunity to train as a joint force because we’re surrounded by joint assets, both here and in Hawaii.”

THE ARMY is radically shifting how it trains soldiers in Alaska. In the past, commanders avoided training during the harshest winter conditions. Soldiers joked that the Army “hibernated” during those months. Now commanders are ramping up winter warfare training.

“This is really the third year of us getting out and changing our training strategy to put in heavy training in the winter months; the rest of the Army sort of does the opposite,” said 11th Airborne commander Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler. He added that “the harshest environmental climate is Arctic … if something will work in that environment, you can make it work anywhere.”

Martin said it takes about 270 days to plan a JPMRC rotation like the one in Alaska. After planning the war game, the 196th runs the Operations Group Instrumentation System, which Martin said “keeps track of everything and provides the data for the exercise that allows us to see where players are at, what actions they took, records communications, so we can understand how they were passing information data to each other.”

Most of the commanders and trainers running JPMRC that have combat experience got it in the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Friel deployed to Afghanistan twice. But the wars they fought — drawn-out grinding counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations against lightly equipped forces in those countries — are very different from the sorts of conflicts JPMRC aims to prepare soldiers for.

“In recent memory, over the last 20 or so years, I think most soldiers experienced maybe horrific things, but a lot — most soldiers — came home,” said Friel.

As tensions have escalated between the U.S. and China, commanders are reckoning with the potential of conflicts that would be much larger and kill thousands more troops. The bloody war in Ukraine has offered a sobering glimpse of what it could look like as both sides relentlessly fight each other with tanks and artillery.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought destruction both to battlefields and Ukrainian cities and killed thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. Exercise planners have watched the unfolding conflict to inform training during JPMRC rotations, adding elements such as drones that have come to play a central role as both Ukrainian and Russian forces use them to deadly effect.

BUT IN Hawaii, the Army is preparing for a potential fight to hold onto training areas it considers vital. Several of the Hawaii ranges the military uses for JPMRC belong to the state, and the Army’s leases expire in 2029.

Conversations about lease negotiations are taking place as many Hawaii residents and officials are rethinking their relationship with the military in the aftermath of the 2021 contamination of the Navy’s Oahu water system by fuel from its underground Red Hill fuel storage facility.

The military is currently working to remove 104 million gallons of fuel from Red Hill tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu relies on for drinking water.

Last year, state agencies and lawmakers criticized a draft environmental impact statement the Army crafted on its proposal to renew the lease on all the state land at Hawaii island’s Pohakuloa Training Area, parts of which the state has designated as a conservation district.

In its comments on the draft EIS, the state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands wrote that “it appears that military training is in direct conflict of the Conservation District designation.”

Regional leaders across the Pacific have called on the U.S. and China to lower the temperature on tensions. But U.S. military officials in the Pacific say the Chinese military has not responded to attempts to reestablish lines of communication they once maintained to avoid conflict. Meanwhile, China has accused the U.S. of provocation as it steps up training with militaries around the region.

USS America docks in Manila. The first of many warships set to bring thousands of US troops to the Philippines for the Balikatan exercises.

In a recent interview with national security news outlet Defense One, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, “There’s a lot of rhetoric in China, and a lot of rhetoric elsewhere, to include the United States, that could create the perception that war is right around the corner or we’re on the brink of war with China … and I think that the rhetoric itself can overheat the environment.”

Friel said he believes most soldiers have little interest in putting their skills to work in a real conflict, but that troops need to be trained and ready if called.

“I think everybody is focused on making things as realistic and challenging and complex and ambiguous as the world we’re in,” he said. “The goal is to make sure soldiers come home.”

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