U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Marcus Evans gives a speech at the division change of command ceremony at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Aug. 25, 2023. (Mariah Aguilar/U.S. Army)
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The new commander of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks has been busy from Day 1 of his new assignment after taking command in August.
Maj. Gen. Marcus Evans, who came to Hawaii to lead the 25th after serving as chief of staff at U.S. Special Operations Command, took over as soldiers from the division were preparing for while others were on the ground on Maui supporting wildfire relief efforts.
“It’s been an incredible honor to serve in this organization, particularly coming in at this time,“ Evans said.
He has been frequently on and off of planes as he takes on his role as leader of the Army’s “Tropic Lightning“ division as its troops deploy for training and missions across the region. In September he traveled to Indonesia as his soldiers took part in Exercise Super Garuda Shield with the Indonesian military and troops from five other countries.
The Pentagon considers the Pacific to be its top-priority area of operations amid tensions with China. After two decades of focusing on hunting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and other countries, the military is now trying to train troops for potential large-scale combat operations against “near peer“ military forces that could fight back with missiles, ships, aircraft and tanks.
Evans said that at the 25th he’s focusing on transforming the force, which he describes “a continuous effort really to deliver war-fighting advantages.”
The Army has been gradually stepping up training deployments around Asia through Operation Pathways, but it also faces challenges operating across vast distances as it hauls troops, weapons and supplies across the Pacific. Evans said that a big emphasis in the region will be how “we sustain ourselves based on what we deploy with indefinitely.”
He said that big focuses are trying to better utilize water locally rather than shipping it in, as well as creatively looking for ways to ensure they don’t blow through fuel and batteries they need to operate.
“None of that can be done without our partners and allies in the region,“ Evans said. In exercises around the Pacific, he said, one of the biggest takeaways is that commanders need close relationships with foreign militaries who have the local knowledge and connections to keep American forces supplied and operating safely.
Many countries in the region have been seeking closer military ties with the U.S. as tensions flare, particularly in the South China Sea. Beijing considers the South China Sea, a critical waterway that more than a third of international trade moves through, to be its exclusive sovereign territory, over the objections of neighboring countries that also rely on it for trade and fishing.
The U.S. Navy has been sending forces to the region for near-constant “freedom of navigation“ operations. The Marine Corps has lately been reorganizing its forces to focus increasingly on amphibious operations, returning to its roots as a naval service, and has also stepped up training in the region.
With much of the tensions centered around maritime territorial and navigation rights, there has been debate in military circles about what role the Army can — or should — play in the Pacific. But Evans insists his division, and the Army more broadly, is absolutely critical to Pacific operations.
During World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese and the U.S. militaries fought “island hopping“ campaigns to control islands to resupply ships and aircraft.
“The land domain is one of the domains that will always be decisive in any conflict,“ said Evans. “History has shown us, particularly here in the Pacific, that eventually everything will have to come back to the land domain for resupply, for some level of security.”
Today in the South China Sea, Beijing has seized disputed islands and atolls — and even built artificial islands in disputed waters—and built bases on them. Several host anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets.
“Our ability to fight and gain ground and hold ground, and project force from that into other domains—whether it’s the air, maritime, cyber or space domain — will remain absolutely critical and decisive for a potential future conflict,“ said Evans.
In November the 25th Infantry Division will conduct its annual rotation of Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center training at sites on Oahu and Hawaii island, joined by troops from New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Evans said the exercise seeks to implement lessons from observing the course of the conflict in Ukraine.
The bloody fighting in Ukraine, which began when Russian forces that invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 pushed into western Ukraine in 2022 in a failed attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv, has offered a harrowing look at what large-scale fighting in the Pacific could look like. Thousands of fighters and civilians alike have died as the two armies pummel each other with artillery, missiles and airstrikes.
Evans said that in Ukraine, fighting formations “have had to adjust and get smaller and be able to hide in plain sight to counter the autonomous, remotely controlled systems that can sense further ... so that is a lesson learned that we’re trying to take on here in the Pacific.”
During two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders got used to operating from large, developed and well -defended bases while taking largely for granted that they would have superior firepower. In a fight with China in the Pacific, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
Evans said that with that in mind, the shift in training is “challenging every one of our formations to be smaller, less observable, and able to move as quickly as possible, while still sustaining mission command of their forces.”
As they look to the Pacific, many military leaders have expressed an eagerness to put the long, bloody and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in their rearview mirror. In 2021 the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, and a victorious Taliban returned to power, prompting thousand of Afghans to flee the country to escape the theocratic militant group’s rule. For many it marked a symbolic end to the post-9/11 era.
But some analysts believe that in its eagerness to “not fight the last war,“ the U.S. military risks forgetting the lessons of those conflicts.
“I think our challenge going forward is to be thoughtful and reflective and capturing the lessons from the previous 20 years understanding which ones and under what conditions apply to the next 20 years or in a (large-scale combat operations) environment here in the Pacific,“ said Evans.
He said that in thinking about experiences in the Middle East, as well as when observing the fighting in Ukraine, it’s important for military leaders in the Pacific to think about “which things are directly transferable, which ones can be used as a reference point and which ones do not apply.”
“We’re going to continue to advance here in the 25th, and that is just a relentless focus on war-fighting readiness — it’s our No. 1 focus,“ said Evans. “And that partnership that we hold so dear with the local community is integral to that process. We realize it’s an honor and a privilege to live in this beautiful community.”
Evans’ tenure at Schofield begins as the Army is preparing for a potential fight to hold onto Hawaii training areas it considers vital. Several of the Hawaii ranges the military uses for JPMRC belong to the state, and the Army’s leases expire in 2029.
Conversations about lease negotiations are taking place as many Hawaii residents and officials rethink their relationship with the military in the aftermath of the 2021 contamination of the Navy’s Oahu water system by fuel from its underground Red Hill fuel storage facility.
But while relations between the military and local communities have become more strained, Evans said so far he’s felt welcome across the island, whether it’s at the beach or exploring Oahu’s diverse food offerings.
“People are just so kind and friendly and welcoming,“ he said. “I’ve enjoyed getting out on the water, sitting on a board and looking up at a mountain range that runs into the sea, and then trying to catch a small wave with a surf instructor keeping me straight.”
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