US Army Pacific Commander: Next war will be violent, very human, unpredictable and long
18 Feb 2022|

Despite a strong focus on air and naval power, the commander of the United States Army in the Pacific says land forces will play a crucial role in any future regional conflict.

And to deter the growing power of China’s armed forces from conflict, the US relies heavily on friends and allies through the region, says General Charles Flynn.

In conversation with ASPI executive director Peter Jennings in Canberra this week, Flynn made clear that such a conflict would be costly in the extreme.

‘Despite any wishful thinking, we can be sure that the next war will be very violent, it will be very human, it will be very unpredictable. And so our Pacific theatre army is preparing for long war because history has proven that wars are often longer than we expect.’

Flynn assumed command of the US Army Pacific in June 2021 with instructions to urgently ‘seize the initiative, to think act and operate differently’.

The US Army, Flynn said, was taking new approaches to create new dilemmas for adversaries and to create new opportunities with allies and partners. That was being done through the cooperative training efforts of the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center in Hawaii and Alaska which were used last year in exercise Garuda Shield in Indonesia. There ‘our forces trained in an environment and in the conditions that we are most likely expected to operate in’.

Such exercises increased the confidence of allies and partners and were and absolute counterweight to destabilising activities going on across the region. ‘And they are our strength being together, elbow to elbow, rifle to rifle, tank to tank, formation to formation.’

Flynn said he had three goals in talks with Australian commanders: expanding the scale and scope of exercises and experiments, tying together Australian and US training centres, and then modernising in a way that made both nations’ forces not just interoperable but almost interchangeable.

Of longstanding exercises with allies in Japan, the Philippines and Thailand, the most significant was Talisman Sabre in Australia, which tested high-end warfighting scenarios. ‘We must continue to grow together in this age of new technology and new threats,’ Flynn said.

‘The future fight will be global, it’ll be multidirectional, it’ll be multidimensional, and it’ll be multi-domain,’ said Flynn. ‘If we fight the next war domain on domain, we may not like the outcome. But if we fight across all domains with our allies and partners, and if we fight as a combined joint force, demonstrating our ability to make that problem more complex and harder every day, that is the core of integrated deterrents, and there is no adversary in a planet that can match that teamwork.’

The Biden administration’s just released Indo-Pacific strategy declares that this is the start of what it calls a decisive decade and says our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether China succeeds in transforming the rules and norms we’ve benefited from.

Jennings noted that while that focused on the next 10 years, Australia’s plans to re-equip were set to take 20 years or more. So, he asked, what gave the US military its sense of urgency?

Flynn said that urgency flowed from the concerns of the US administration that China was both a now and a future problem.

‘I think having a sense of urgency about the challenges that are in front of us is beneficial to focusing our efforts, particularly in a time when resources for all of us are diminishing in some ways.

‘We have to be much more thoughtful about the actions that we take and the work that we do together. Because again, I think the efforts that the region is taking with like-minded countries to keep it as a free and open Indo-Pacific is the path that we need to continue to follow given the actions by China.’

Jennings noted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s observation in Australia recently that China was focused on world domination and asked Flynn if he shared that judgement.

‘I do,’ said Flynn. ‘I think they absolutely have global aspirations. I think their first step is the regional work that they are taking on. And again, I think the things that they’re doing in the region is their effort to then achieve their aspirations globally.’

Flynn said the AUKUS agreement involving the US, Britain and Australia showed how the alliance was developing.

‘I think the benefits of agreements like that, and then the things that we can do together in the region to continue to exercise and conduct operations in support of one another, whether that’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to training and experiments that we have shared efforts on is really important.’

The Australian Army’s modernisation efforts were very closely aligned to modernisation of the US Army.

In terms of Flynn’s stated need to shift his army’s mindset, get organised and get into position, the general said the focus was on preparations for the future through training institutions in the region. ‘That’s one effort where we can train in the environment and in the conditions that we’re most likely to operate in in the region. And then we can build that training readiness with our allies and partners.’

That would provide pathways for the US to project ready forces into the region, Flynn said. ‘If the outcome of that is to increase the confidence in our allies and partners as we exercise forward and we enable some of their efforts, then that is another outcome we want.’

The US Army was working closely with the Australian Defence Force.

Changing mindsets among the 107,000 people in the Pacific theatre army meant ensuring that leaders at every level, from headquarters to small formations, provided identity and purpose and mission and drew on lessons from operations going back to the defence of Manilla in 1899 and the massive battles of World War II.

Military diplomacy sees Flynn travelling extensively in the Pacific and elsewhere in Asia meeting counterparts from the armed forces of friendly nations, discussing areas of cooperation such as exercises, and ‘finding out from them what it is that they need, what are their objectives, what is it that they seek from us.

‘And if we can help in some small way or large ways with training or certain expertise that we have, or expertise that they have that they want to help us with, then I think the value of that is much greater than a transactional engagement that others may be having in the region.’

Flynn said that beyond the notion of US and Australian forces being interoperable would be ‘interchangeability’. ‘If you have similar attack aviation, similar lift aviation, similar ground combat vehicles, similar air defence, short-range, long-range, similar fires, networks, then … you’re certainly going to be together.’

All the US services were working on and experimenting with new technology to give them an edge. The goal was to weave such weapons and equipment into exercises taking place in the areas where they might ultimately be deployed in a crisis or conflict. ‘I think there’s great value in that because some of the test locations that we have in the continental US look an awful lot like the Middle East and this region does not look like that.’

His would be the first army to have a hybrid cloud which would go up in the coming year. Further work encouraged under the AUKUS agreement would be in artificial intelligence, quantum physics and cyber. Bringing robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning into this region could advance work of like-minded partners like Australia. ‘I think we’ll make some real gains by exercising and experimenting all at the same time.’ Platforms included new watercraft. Every exercise had some form of experimentation going on.

Flynn said the US Army had six modernisation priorities—integrated air–missile defence, future vertical lift, long-range precision fires, network modernisation, next-generation combat vehicle and soldier lethality—and created cross-functional teams to develop them. ‘If we are not adapting and changing, then we’re going to fail and we’re going to get behind.’

That work benefited from cooperation with an ally such as Australia.

Asked if the US and its allies could stand up to China’s growing military power, Flynn responded: ‘I don’t think it’s a question of can; I think we must.’ That came down to the strength of alliances across the region.

And how important to the US was an ability to operate from Australia?

‘Rotational and dynamic employment of forces in this region at scale is a really, important strategic deployment undertaking that we have to participate in as a US military, particularly the army,’ said Flynn.

The answer was to ‘have more faces in more places’, he said, ‘constantly rehearsing the ability to take strategic movements and conduct operational manoeuvres using air, sea, land, and shaping with cyberspace.’