Ruler of the waves

17:00, Jun 15 2013
Head of military operations in the Pacific Admiral Samuel J Locklear III, who is also in charge of the world’s most powerful radar.

A giant golf ball, housing the world's most powerful and sophisticated radar, slips in and out of Ohau's waters, with barely a local eyebrow raised in consternation.

The nine-storey Sea-Based X-Band radar comes and goes from Pearl Harbor frequently.

Recently it returned - having been shifted closer to North Korea as concerns grew over Pyongyang's sabre-rattling. The super-sensitive equipment is designed to detect rogue missiles hurtling towards the US, and is said to be powerful enough to track a baseball 3000 miles away.

Hawaii's residents are as comfortable with the SBX monolith as they are with the rest of the US defence forces stationed on the island. The military is the island's second biggest employer, after tourism.

The most isolated spot on the globe, Ohau is also its most strategically important. It is home to Pacific Command - or PACOM (pay-com). Housed on former sugar cane fields at Camp Smith, the sprawling base on the Halawa Heights, has sweeping views 180m above Pearl Harbor. More than 25,000 personnel and their families live and work on the base.

They all answer to Admiral Samuel J Locklear III - head of military operations in the Pacific. More than half of US military forces fall under the command of PACOM.


An all-American hero, the 58-year-old is highly decorated, having served in Iraq and commanding the US Navy enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone. He greets visiting journalists with an intimidating handshake and a cheery "Aloha".

He does have one distinctly Asia habit - a hankering for green tea, which he brings with him to the briefing.

"Most think that all Americans drink is coffee which is not true," he explains. "I drink only green tea. And through my travels, I have come across many great teas so I can swap 'em around every day."

Locklear's beat - or AOR (area of responsibility) - extends into what he calls "Indo-Asia Pacific" stretching from the California coast deep into the Indian Ocean, and the Pakistan border. It includes 52 per cent of the world's surface area, and up to 70 per cent of its population. Most of the world's key trade routes - transporting fuel and goods - criss-cross his patch. If the region were to destablise, through conflict or the more likely natural disaster, it would cripple the global economy. That's on him.

All this responsibility means he doesn't spend a lot of time at the base, traversing the vast Pacific Ocean frequently. This week he returned from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the region's biggest defence and security forum, where China's increasing dominance and its intentions were among the most pressing issues.

Locklear says he remains in awe of the size and complexity of Asia Pacific.

"The Pacific Ocean is the largest thing in the world," he says. "You can take every land mass and push 'em all together and put them inside the Pacific Ocean and still have room for another African continent.

Its societies are also complex, with a host of cultures, religions and governments.

"The good news is . . . it's a much more predictable place than others I have served and the societies are better managed as societies than other parts of the world and less quick to react, which I think is a strength," he says.

The US is not policing this huge area alone. There are 36 countries in Pacific Command, and Locklear says there is just one he does not interact with: North Korea.

Seven of the world's largest militaries are based in the region - and all five of the world's declared nuclear powers.

He works closely with five of the US's formal defence allies: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. It also has key partners such as Chile, Singapore, Tonga and New Zealand.

After almost three decades of tension over New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance, the two forces have begun to co-operate, and more importantly, exercise together again. He will visit New Zealand in the next couple of months.

Locklear says he has a "very strong" relationship with Defence Force chief Rhys Jones - and would like to see more co-operation in his five-year "theatre campaign".

"We talk, see each other all the time and we find opportunities for our forces to get together . . . the US and New Zealand have had - particularly from the eyes of New Zealand - a rocky few years. But I think there has been some good movement in the last year to move that back in the right direction.

"All along, although that was politically rocky, it never diminished our military-to-military interest in each other."

Despite the crisp white uniform, Locklear is as much a diplomat as a military chief and he speaks a lot about US defence policy without really saying anything at all.

The mask slips just slightly, when pressed on how much collaboration is likely while New Zealand remains nuclear-free.

"You guys have a nuclear issue," he says, before quickly adding: "When we do Rim of the Pacific exercises, like we did last year, New Zealand ships will be here participating in that.

"We just had a New Zealand ship in Guam for a port visit. So, we are moving on from those things. I don't spend a lot of my time thinking about that these days."

The unthawing of Washington-Beijing relations is largely attributed to America's "rebalancing" strategy in Asia and the growing threat to its hegemony from China.

Of great concern to China's neighbours is its assertive defence of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. At the Shangri-La forum Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam's opening speech pointed to growing risks to "maritime security and safety as well as freedom of navigation".

Observers worry that US patrols of the region could encounter Chinese vessels attempting to exert control in the South China Seas, Locklear reiterates the US position that it isn't taking sides in any territory dispute. But he does agree it could disrupt the security environment.

"That doesn't mean we don't care, that we are passive and sit by and watch. It will require compromise . . . or you will eventually have a couple of young lieutenants on ships that don't understand their nation's policy and get out there and start shooting at each other. Am I worried about it if it does? We'll just to have to deal with it."

North Korea, is obviously a concern. In April he said it was a "clear and direct threat to the US". This past week, he listed it as his third challenge - after natural disasters and trans-national problems like drug and human trafficking or pandemics.

Although he didn't volunteer it as a challenge, 5 per cent sequestration cuts to the Defense Department are clearly his biggest worry. Earlier this year he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "sequestration would have a catastrophic effect on our ability to do the type of global operations that we're doing today . . .".

Andrea Vance is participating in the East West Center's Jefferson Fellowship with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Sunday Star Times