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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Willard changing way of thinking at Pacific Command

 •  Isle veterans court sought

By Richard Halloran

In his first six months on watch as commander of American forces in the Pacific and Asia, Adm. Robert Willard has gotten his command to put greater emphasis on strategic thinking instead of operational planning.

"This is what combatant commanders across the globe should be attending to," Willard said in his headquarters overlooking the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Most American military leaders are comfortable with day-to-day operations, he said, but needed "more of a focus on alignment with our national strategies and policies and more of a focus on understanding the strategies and policies of our regional counterparts."

The admiral suggested four targets for the strategic thinking of the Pacific Command (PACOM):

• The PACOM staff and the assigned Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps components to ensure that their actions "make sense and are in alignment with our national security interests and in alignment with our objectives for the region."

• The Pentagon in Washington: Although the admiral didn't say so, many officers in the Pacific and Asia think that U.S. military posture is still Euro-centric despite America having fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and having large forces in this region.

• The State Department, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies in Washington that could be pulled in for a "whole-of-government" approach, about which much is said these days but not so much is done.

• Chiefs of the armed forces in 36 other nations in the Pacific and Asia. In addition, Willard said, "we spend time with the ministers of defense to understand their priorities. So it's very much a study of the region and its changing issues."

Asked if a key part of the emphasis on strategic thinking was to educate himself, Willard was succinct: "It is."

Then he elaborated: "For me, this has been a tremendous education to try and adapt to what is a very different way of thinking, a different set of counterparts and to try to understand our national strategically as it relates to this half of the world. It's been a fabulous education."

Until he became the PACOM commander, Willard had been steeped in operations. Trained as a fighter pilot, he was executive officer of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, in Nevada. He was the aerial coordinator for the film "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise and flew in the movie as the pilot of an enemy fighter.

Later, Willard commanded the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, and the 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan. As a four-star admiral, he began the transition from operations to strategy as commander of the Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor.

Shortly after taking over PACOM, he organized five focus groups to produce strategic studies for him, his staff, and subordinate commanders. One concentrates on China, which is rapidly modernizing its armed forces and may one day challenge the U.S. in Asia. Another looks at India, an emerging power that the U.S. has been cultivating.

A third analyzes North Korea, which is developing nuclear weapons and daily threatens South Korea. The fourth concentrates on treaty partners such as Japan and South Korea, and on friends such as Singapore or potential friends such as Indonesia. The fifth studies transnational issues such as terror, piracy, drug smuggling and human trafficking.

Sometimes, the admiral said, these groups produce recommendations about "things that PACOM can control. I can either advocate changes or I can make changes." At other times, he said, "it can be more complex to do the policy comparison or the legal comparison, in which case I'm taking suggestions back into the Pentagon for consideration."