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FORT RICHARDSON, Alaska – The Pentagon has airmailed Beijing a belated and unsubtle message for the recent Chinese New Year – by parachuting in Pacific combat troops into the Asia Pacific.
After more than a decade of wars in the Middle East, 2014 is the year in which the U.S. officially starts re-orientating its military focus to Asia as Washington aims to counter the military build-up by China.
The U.S. fears America’s regional allies will suffer instability as Beijing flexes it muscles – including developing ballistic missiles designed to take out the U.S. Pacific fleet.
This past weekend, as part of the annual multinational joint exercise known as Cobra Gold, the U.S. dropped a crack airborne task force into central Thailand. They were the first U.S. boots on Asian soil since the official change in military and foreign policy posture.
The drill was to seize and secure an airfield at Lop Buri, 90 miles north of Bangkok, amid a humanitarian disaster. The exercise involved 400 parachutists from 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, known in military shorthand as 4-25, based at Fort Richardson, outside of Anchorage.
With the U.S. and Thailand leading Cobra Gold, commanders and analysts say the strategic aim of the exercise was to demonstrate to Beijing’s communist leadership how fast and effective the U.S. can be in supporting its Asian allies, all of whom lie in a tight arc around China -- from India and Nepal through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to South Korea and Japan.
“It’s sent a message in terms of our capability of combat to our allies concerned about those who threaten peace and stability to the region,” said Army Col. Matt McFarlane, 4-25’s commander, speaking to Fox News by phone from Lop Buri.
“We’re an established contingency force for when there’s an operational requirement to get a large amount of force combat power anywhere at any time [in the Asia Pacific] and to reassure our allies we can be there to support them.”
The presence of U.S. troops on the ground in what China considers its backyard will be unsettling for Beijing, say military analysts, because it resents America's 60-year dominance of the Asia-Pacific.
“It’s a powerful message that the U.S. is putting boots on the ground because they have the entire U.S. military standing behind them. Every country in the region recognizes that,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, a national security analyst and former acting U.S. Army chief of staff.
“We’ve put parachuting forces into places and taken an amount of risk before and the U.S. will continue to do that,” Keane added.
As Cobra Gold got under way, one Chinese military official gloatingly told state media that Beijing’s “regional military impact […] cannot be ignored” – which is why the Chinese are participating in the eight-nation exercise for the first time this year
Their invitation is viewed as an attempt for all sides to gloss over the thorny issue that the drill is partially targeted at Beijing, which has been increasing its military spending at more than 10 percent annually.
Skeptics view China’s presence as a token gesture; its contingency sent to Cobra Gold comprises a mere 17 observers, compared to the 9,000 U.S. troops involved. Those observers are not participating in the live-fire drills, jungle survival training, amphibious landings and warplane formations.
Despite official downplaying of the underlying politics behind Cobra Gold, there is growing alarm among U.S. defense leaders over China’s military advance, particularly its deep strike capability.
Beijing has been quietly developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that can strike U.S. aircraft carriers and other vessels at a range of 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers). It is estimated that the missile can travel at Mach 10 (4-5km/sec) and reach its maximum range in less than 12 minutes.
The U.S. fleet has nothing to repel firepower of that magnitude, prompting lawmakers to join in calls for a rapid development of new systems to intercept the ASBMs.
China’s advanced missiles -- and its provocative claims to Pacific land and airspace – are viewed in Washington as intimidation towards the U.S. and its allies and as part of China’s regional power grab.
“We are going to have to have early defenses against ballistic missiles if we’re going to remain dominant in the western Pacific,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told Fox News at the Reagan National Defense Forum held in California in November.
Until those systems are developed, 4-25’s involvement in Cobra Gold stands out as a critical line of tactical capability because it is the only airborne brigade the nation has covering the Pacific. It is also emerging as one of the most versatile brigades in the U.S. military.
The U.S. has become used to fighting insurgency-based warfare in the desert and mountainous terrains of Iraq and Afghanistan.
4-25’s unique area of operation stretches from Asia’s rainforests to the Arctic Circle, presenting challenging conditions the U.S. hasn’t fought in since Vietnam right through to the deep-cold hazards of protecting U.S. claims to oil underneath the northern ice cap.
“This mission in Thailand is the very start of that,” said LTC, Alan Brown, spokesman for U.S. Army, Alaska. “4-25 helps spearhead the combat readiness for America’s new Asia posture because their geographic reach extends more than any other over such diverse and extreme terrain and weather conditions.”
The brigade can deploy infantry soldiers anywhere in the region within 19 hours from “the phone call to being on the ground.” It is supported by a Stryker brigade, whose tactical vehicles can be flown in to bolster the advance forces within two to four days.
In military parlance, its combat readiness is considered part of America’s standard battle rhythm. And, as the brigade’s additional training with their Thai colleagues is intended to show this weekend, it doesn’t mean that America would need to enter into a fight in the Asia Pacific on its own.
“If we do get into some kind of conflict or rapid engagement in the Asia Pacific,” added Brown, ”then the U.S. is going to do it in full lockstep with its partner nations.”