The world is changing. And those things affecting the Asia-Pacific region will impact all of us, an Air Force general told members of the Columbus community Thursday.
“The world … is reshaping. It will shape our futures as well,” said Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
North spoke at the Columbus Air Force Base Community Council’s meeting on the base and mapped out what is the military’s, and should be the nation’s, focus in world affairs.
“Our backyard is influenced by someone else’s backyard,” he said. Military and humanitarian action are twin requirements for U.S. forces.
North outlined five trends in the Pacific region where economies, populations and resources are commanding American attention.
A first trend is the changing North Korean threat. The general said the U.S. never signed a treaty after the Korean War.
The death of Kim Jong Il and ascendance of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as leader of North Korea warrants close attention because of the nation’s nuclear and conventional war power.
“He has a choice,” the general said of Kim Jong Un, adding the Air Force is ready to fight on the Korean peninsula.
A greater threat could be the implosion of the country, North said, because of the economy and lack of human rights.
A growing Chinese presence is a second trend, he said, noting the U.S. must seek to understand China. One of every five people on Earth lives in China, he said.
The country bears watching because of rampant illegal Internet activity that can compromise security, North said. Another area of concern is the intent of that nation’s army as it increases its power.
A third trend is improved regional cooperation.
“No nation today can do anything by themselves,” North said.
U.S. resources are stretched, he said. Congress is rewriting a national military strategy with finite resources, so cooperation with partners is critical.
North cited Vietnam as an example of a country that was a former enemy and is now an ally in the region.
A fourth trend is territorial competition in the region’s waters, he said. Illegal fishing is a cause of conflict above ground. The other is below ground with natural resources in the South China Sea — 28 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
A fifth trend is growing democratization and economic liberalization. He pointed to the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and the Chinese economy as examples.
Another major player in the region is India, the general said. It is the world’s largest democracy, the world’s largest arms importer and the world’s third largest military. India’s economy is growing 9 to 12 percent each year.
North said the Air Force isn’t always fighting people or a nation. The military’s biggest enemy is Mother Nature. Every two months, a natural disaster requiring international assistance strikes the Pacific.
The earthquake in Japan and ensuing tsunami was the most expensive disaster in world history, he said. It was double Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
So humanitarian aid is just as much a part of the military mission there as keeping the peace or fighting a war, North said.
North shared his observations on the day the defense budget was to be presented to Congress.
“Our budget will have its challenges,” he told the base’s leaders. “We’re going to take some cuts.”
As the nation moves out of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general said, the military budget will be “right sized” to match the nation’s defense priorities.
“The best defense is being forward,” he said, especially in the uneasy peace in the Pacific. This is not a time to pull all American military forces back to the states. “We’ve got to be prepared to fight tonight.”
He encouraged the Columbus community to make its voice heard in Congress.
“It’s not time to lay quietly,” he said. “We all need to be all in.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta discussed the defense budget in a Thursday news conference. The Associated Press reported the following highlights that would affect the Air Force:
n The Air Force would retire some older planes including about two dozen C-5A cargo aircraft and 65 of its oldest C-130 cargo planes.
n Purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets, to be fielded by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, would be slowed.
Stuart Vance is author of a book about aviation in the Golden Triangle and listened intently to the general’s presentation.
“He showed us a good picture of the problems that exist in the Pacific theater and assured us of our readiness,” Vance said.
“It was very eye-opening to me,” said Dixie Butler, who owns a historic home, Temple Heights, in Columbus.
Kevin Stafford, president of the Base Community Council, said many people know the mission of Columbus Air Force Base, but few know the mission of the U.S. military in the Pacific.
“All in all, it’s eye-opening to me,” he said.
Gary North said he hoped to fly a sortie with his son, 1st Lt. Kent North, during his visit. Kent North is an instructor pilot at the airbase.
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