Features | Security

The Interview: Admiral Samuel J. Locklear

America’s rebalance towards Asia has many talking. The U.S. Navy will be at the forefront of such efforts. Adm. Locklear gives us his take.

By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe for

As the United States military’s most important and largest overseas command, U.S. Pacific Command, otherwise known as PACOM, covers a jurisdiction that is half the Earth’s surface, 50 per cent of the world’s population and has one-fifth of the U.S. military’s total strength under its command. PACOM Commander, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe on what the upgraded U.S. presence in the region will imply, including initiatives to neutralize the growing transnational challenges like violent extremism; the impact of the pivot on relations with Indonesia and Indochina; and, importantly, the likely reverberations for U.S.-China relations.

When you say that the U.S. is rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, what was different about the activities of PACOM prior to the global war on terrorism?

Admiral Locklear: After the end of World War II and before 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had a continual presence in the Asia-Pacific. This presence enabled the growth and sustainment of a secure environment that I believe engendered economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. It also facilitated the rise of competent militaries that are participating broadly in the security environment today.

Before 9/11, much of the resources of the U.S. military were dedicated to ongoing operations in the Asia- Pacific. Although we did pivot away from the Asia-Pacific for over ten years, we still had assets dedicated to combat operations in the region.

When you say "rebalancing", what precisely do you mean?

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Admiral Locklear: U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming to a close, and President Obama and the Secretary of Defense are looking to the future at what our defense force will look like post-Afghanistan and our global priorities. They recognize that the most significant national interest of the United States, and the interests of five of our seven allies and emerging partners, lies here in the Asia- Pacific.

Through rebalancing in the next few years, we want to have the right forces in the right mix in the right places in the Asia-Pacific, so that peace and security can continue to prosper in this region.The U.S. forces operating in this region, both rotational and forward stationed, are crucial to our strategy in this part of the world and ensure we have the right formal presence and are ready to provide the right assistance to our allies and partners.

At some level we are providing the right level of deterrence so we can ensure peace and security in the region. This is a continuum of our security role in northeast Asia, which is still a critical element of the overall PACOM strategy, and it will require us to take a different view of how we operate with our allies and partners and how we rotate our forces in and out with our partners and allies in several locations. For instance, in Australia we have been pursuing the cooperation between our Marine Corps and the Australian forces, specifically in Darwin. That is a good example of how we are working differently in the region in positioning ourselves to build a better collective security environment.

The United States puts together a calendar of events where countries with whom we have ongoing dialogue come together. These events include dialogue at the chiefs of defense level and at lower tiers. There can be dozens of such events and they extend from high-level talks to individual unit exercises. We host an annual Chief of Defense conference one year in Hawaii and co-host it another year in another country. In 2012, we co-hosted the conference with Australia in Sydney. We invited the Chiefs of Defense from most of the countries in this region, including India, China, Russia, Pakistan, France, and the United Kingdom, to get together and have frank discussions on their security interests. These are the type of discussions that help with commerce and lead to peace. When these don’t occur that’s when we have problems.

We are trying to build mutual trust and figure out areas of shared interests. There are real opportunities for us to build bilateral and multilateral relationships with all these countries so everyone can be a productive participant in the security environment. That’s all the way from the United States to China to Australia to India. Think about it, a peaceful security environment means prosperity for all. That may sound simplistic, but I think it can be realized in the Asia-Pacific because of the nature and maturity of the countries here and what they can build if they work together.

To what extent will the pivot seek to address the threat posed by transnational crime and the prevalence of extremist ideology in the Asia-Pacific?

Admiral Locklear: Violent extremism and transnational crime are serious threats to security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The next transnational threat we're dealing with is violent extremist organizations (VEO) — terrorist organizations. Violent extremism has the potential to destabilize fledgling democracies in the region, challenge government authority, and radicalize otherwise peaceful populations.

While the majority of the VEOs in the PACOM Area of Responsibility (AOR) are regionally focused, some aspire to connect with the global jihad movement inspired by al-Qaeda and look for opportunities to target U.S. and Western interests. As we witnessed in the September arrest of a young Bangladeshi college student who attempted to detonate explosives in front of the Federal Reserve building in New York, the threat from individuals inspired by al-Qaeda and radicalized in online forums is growing. Additionally, as terrorist safe havens are disrupted in other AORs some look to countries in the Asia- Pacific region to establish a dispersed base of operations.

We place a lot of emphasis in monitoring terrorist efforts in the Asia-Pacific region to both protect the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad, and to help our partner nations in the AOR prevent the further spread of radical Islam and terrorism.  The encouraging trend seen in PACOM is the persistent pressure our partners and allies have applied against VEOs over the last 10 years and the marked success they have achieved in countering extremist ideology and terror plots. 

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Most notably, Indonesia and the Philippines have had great success in containing VEOs, through police actions resulting in the death of extremists such as Noordin Mat Top in Indonesia, and the arrests of others such as Patek in Pakistan who was then extradited to Indonesia. 

We've also had significant success in the Southern Philippines.  Our Special Operations forces have been training and assisting the Philippine military in counterterrorism missions as well as engaging in civil-military operations geared toward increasing the security and living standards of the people in order to counter extremist influence. 

In the long run, I believe the solution to countering terrorism lies in the professional and capable security services of our partner nations, good governance, and a general sense of prosperity for the people which will make extremist ideology less appealing and create an environment where terrorist organizations don't get the support they need and are no longer able to thrive.

One area of great concern as a target for transnational crime is Cyber. Indeed, Cyber and the impacts of cyber attacks are exponential as the world becomes more educated and dependent on cyber. The global economy today is pretty much there; certainly military operations are very cyber reliant — in almost any scenario you look. So, at PACOM we work to ensure our cyber capabilities are defendable, that they're disciplined and available when we need them — whether it be for humanitarian disaster relief, or for a contingency operation where we might have to go into combat somewhere. We've got some work to do there. The more we can bring our partners and our allies and these multilateral organizations together to discuss cyber and to help shape the rule sets of how we're going to deal with cyber in a responsible way, the better we will be.

The third area I'd like to talk about is in the area of drug enforcement. In the Asia-Pacific, under my command, I have JIATF-West which is a unique organization run by a Coast Guard one star who has a fairly robust organization that looks at drug trafficking all throughout the AOR.  In that look, JIATAF-West primarily focuses on the precursors to drug trafficking, such as the chemical precursors used to make one of the most dangerous drugs in the world, methamphetamines. We're seeing more of these precursors, so we're working hard to build capacity with our partners and allies to suppress the source of these precursors and ultimately suppress the manufacturing of drugs back at home.

Given that Indonesia is an emerging regional power and has substantial economic potential, could you indicate why it is noticeably absent from the PACOMs key focus areas as denoted on your command’s website?

Admiral Locklear: We very much value our strategic partnership as Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy and we have been working hard and making considerable progress in the past few years to expand our security cooperation. In 2010, our two presidents signed a comprehensive partnership and we continue to focus on the four mutually agreed areas: military reform through professionalism and modernization; humanitarian assistance and disaster response; peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism training; land and maritime border security.

In 2011, we had more than 150 interactions with the Indonesian military, so I am confident in saying that our relationship with Indonesia is the closest it has ever been, and I look forward to what the future will hold for this very fruitful and exciting partnership.

What is the status of PACOMs relations with Indochina?

Admiral Locklear: The U.S. -Vietnam military cooperation is positive and continues to improve. We have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that advances our bilateral cooperation and lays out opportunities for us to take the relationship to a higher level and move towards a deeper operational engagement within a multilateral rather than a bilateral context.

We continue to expand our interactions with Cambodia and Laos based on a common understanding of our security interests.

How does PACOM view the rise of Chinese military power?

Admiral Locklear: The rise of China’s military is concerning. I think all of us in this region should be aware of but not necessarily surprised by the direction China’s military is heading. As China rises as an economic power, it will become a regional power and maybe a global power. With that will come changing security interests, so the Chinese will probably need to invest accordingly in a military. That goes for any nation in the world so I don’t think we should be surprised by it.

What we should be concerned about though is what we perceive as a lack of transparency on their part in why they are building the type of systems they are building. Quite frankly, it makes their neighbors nervous and it gives us some cause for concern here at PACOM about the type of military they are building and the type of equipment they are buying. I have discussed this with my Chinese counterparts. How they choose to build their military is their decision but that is the perspective that I have from over here.

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Given your sentiment, where do you see U.S. and Chinese interests converging?

Admiral Locklear: Our converging interests with China are pretty basic. We want security and stability for the economic health of both our countries as well as the countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We want free and open access to sea lanes, air space, cyber space, and other common spaces. I personally think the average Chinese want the same things average Americans want: security for their children and a better tomorrow.

The two nations have to agree that we are part of the global community, focus on the commonalities, and build on converging interests – and see if we can’t break ground in those areas.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defense writer and a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.