The timing for the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce’s 11th annual Military Partnership and luncheon was auspicious.

On Thursday, the same day that President Barack Obama unveiled a new defense strategy that calls for big cuts in spending but a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region, top Hawaii business and government leaders gathered to express their gratitude to regional military commanders for maintaining such a strong presence in the islands.

As Chamber President and CEO Jim Tollefson noted, defense spending represents more than 18 percent of the state’s gross state product of $66.4 billion, second only to tourism as an economic driver. Procurement projects and defense-related spending account for 20 percent of Hawaii’s full-time work force.

Military personnel and projects in Hawaii will be affected by rightsizing at the Pentagon. It includes a 7 percent reduction of “billets” or positions at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and less money for U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects.

But Hawaii’s unique position smack in the middle of the Asia-Pacific theater likely guarantees that federal money will continue to flow to the islands. As Obama himself said in announcing the new defense strategy, “As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region.”

The Pacific and its many rim countries cover a vast geographical region. But, as Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command made clear, there are only three locations for America to “project its power outward” — Japan, the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii.

“You are in a position of advantage and have a very bright future ahead of you,” said Darnell.

Asia-Pacific Pivot

At the APEC summit in November in Honolulu, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a fundamental “pivot” that directed America’s global attention away from the Middle East and Europe and toward the Asia-Pacific region.

That pivot was referenced several times at the chamber-military confab.

One after another, commanders for the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard projected maps of the Pacific Ocean on large screens. To illustrate just how large the region is, Darnell said Ft. Lewis in Washington state is closer to Kuwait than it is to Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s a matter of strategic positioning. The Pacific is home to the five largest military powers in the world: the U.S., China, Russia and the two Koreas.

The key nation is China, the nation that was talked about the most at APEC as well due to its growing economic strength. The key military concern is North Korea, now under new and untested leadership.

Hawaii, and Oahu in particular with its enormous military presence, will be central to U.S. regional strategy.

Lt. Gen Paul Selva, vice commander for Pacific Air Forces, said his parents had recently visited him in Hawaii and “marveled” at how Oahu is “probably the most fortified island anywhere.”

It’s about to become more fortified. Despite the budget-cutting bent of the U.S. Congress, $285 million for local military projects have already been approved for this year, including the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

“PMRF is the foremost site for ballistic missile defense of any location in the world,” said Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “It is unquestionablly the mark that places Hawaii as the most forward place for entry into the Asia-Pacific region.”

Training and Disasters

Besides its physical location and existing infrastructure, Hawaii also offers live-fire training areas. The commanders repeatedly stressed the need for such training.

“It would be morally and ethically wrong to send any troops into any conflict unless they are trained and prepared, and we do that here in Hawaii quite well,” said Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, commanding general of the U.S. Army Pacific. “We have to balance that environmentally and culturally, but our most precious resource is soldiers and their families.”

Hawaii is also important as a “jump-off” for the military to send relief to natural disasters, something underscored by the Japan tsunami and earthquake relief efforts.

“Every eight to 10 weeks, PACOM is responding to some disaster in the Pacific,” said Darnell.

David Carey, president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises Group and chair of the chamber’s Military Affairs Council, noted that Hawaii is a top destination for military R&R. But it is also a place for business, evident by the fact that defense contractors Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman have Honolulu offices.

(Northrop Grumman sponsored the chamber’s military event.)

Hawaii also will be involved in the planned 2014 shift of Marines from Okinawa to Guam and the plan to put a Marine base in Australia.

Cost of Living

As mandated by the Pentagon, the military must do more with less.

Outrigger’s Carey said budget pressure and rising fuel costs forced the Navy to look outside Hawaii for a cruiser modernization and repair project. Another reason: The Hawaii Legislature last session suspended for several years a shipyard exemption to the general excise tax.

That’s a big blow to Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, which Carey noted is the state’s largest industrial employer.

The point wasn’t lost on the many state lawmakers in attendance, as well as U.S. Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle.

Rep. Gene Ward, the state House Minority Leader, told Civil Beat he’s worried there will be more attempts to grab revenue, given the Council on Revenue’s downward forecast also announced Thursday.

But exceptions to GET exemptions can always be made.

Democrat Will Espero, chair of Senate Public Safety, Government Operations and Military Affairs, was optimistic about the military’s commitment to the islands following the chamber event.

“One would think that they are going to stay,” he said. “That’s only logical.”

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