Pacific Exchange Program: Developing Leaders to Meet Challenges across the Indo-Pacific

By Maj. Matthew PargettMarch 10, 2024

Amphibious Exercise (AMPHIBEX) Cobra Gold 24
Members from the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy disembark the ROK No Jeok Bong (LSTII-689) during an amphibious exercise (AMPHIBEX) as part of Joint Exercise Cobra Gold 24, Mar. 1, 2024. Participating in this year’s AMPHIBEX were the U.S., Thailand, and ROK forces, with the United States’ USS Somerset (LPD-25), F-16 fighters, and Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC); the Royal Thai Navy’s HTMS Surin and HTMS Mannai, marine corps’ amphibious combat unit vehicles, and patrol aircraft Type 1 (T-337 or Cessna O-2); and the ROK’s No Jeok Bong (LSTII-689) and KAVV amphibious vehicles. This is the 43rd iteration of the Cobra Gold series of exercises, which emphasizes coordination on readiness, civic action, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. Joint Exercise Cobra Gold is the largest joint exercise in mainland Asia and a concrete example of the strong alliance and strategic relationship between Thailand and the U.S. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Robert Zahn) (Photo Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Zahn) VIEW ORIGINAL

RAYONG PROVINCE, Kingdom of Thailand - The Indo-Pacific, named for two oceans spanning from the Arctic to the jungles of the equator, is a massive region comprising megacities and hundreds of island chains and is home to 60 percent of the world's population. Across these 88 countries, this region is dynamic in cultures, beliefs, resources, and is the geostrategic weight of the world. In recognition of the importance of this region and to prepare the joint force for the enduring and emerging challenges across such a diverse area, America's First Corps established an effort to study friction points, identify solutions, and share best practices across the force. The effort to share this knowledge across the Department of Defense includes sponsoring officers and senior NCOs through joint and multinational exchanges throughout the Indo-Pacific during Operation Pathways. The Pacific Exchange Program (PEP) is an innovative approach that shares valuable knowledge and builds upon critical experiences across the force and dynamic region.

During Exercise Cobra Gold 24 – a multi-service and multi-national exercise in the Kingdom of Thailand – 10 service members representing students from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) embedded in staff sections across I Corps forward in Thailand. These PEP participants joined in corps activities spanning various critical topics, including logistics, protection, and combined interoperability. The I Corps Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, who initiated the program, directed PEP participants to have unparalleled access from the strategic to tactical level with which to make observations and offer recommendations and lessons learned.

“I Corps maintains a persistent presence west of the international dateline because it’s important that we can assist our friends, partners and allies as challenges emerge. Inviting these service member-scholars to embed within this corps during Operation Pathways exercises reinforces that commitment,” said Brunson.

“The Pacific Exchange Program is just one way we are employing unique solutions to solve complex challenges across the Indo-Pacific, both to enhance the effectiveness of the joint force in this region and assure our friends that we are a committed and dependable partner and ally. I’m excited these participants are here to learn, but more excited to see their recommendations to enhance the joint force.”

Participants across the cohort shared equal excitement in the opportunity to learn from I Corps staff during such a dynamic joint multinational exercise.

U.S. Army Maj. Christopher Boss, an NPS student and PEP participant, shared, “While our professors excel at conveying the latest advancements in their respective fields, the Pacific Exchange Program offers invaluable insights into the practical implementation, or lack thereof, of these advancements…I view this program as indispensable for gaining a comprehensive understanding of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Part of the unique value of the PEP is its combination with formal education opportunities like the Naval Post Graduate School with the on-the-ground experiences these students receive when embedded in I Corps.

“The combination of participating in the PEP alongside our studies at NPS holds significant importance,” said Boss. “As students, we have the opportunity to reflect deeply on present challenges, but once we graduate, the demands of our roles can consume us to the extent that it becomes difficult to divert our attention to other critical matters, such as addressing issues surrounding contested logistics and sustainability.”

With eligible candidates representing officers and NCOs, strategists, fellows, innovators, and influencers throughout the Indo-Pacific, the program seeks to pull creative and unconventional ideas and observations to best prepare the joint force for the emerging challenges of the future.

“The majority of key takeaways I hope to take from Cobra Gold 24 are insightful observations of interoperability opportunities with our partners and allies within this area of responsibility,” shared U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Gessica Lillich. Representing the first cohort of NCOs participating in PEP, Lillich brings a new and valuable perspective to the program.

“I am looking forward to capturing those observations that will stand as a legacy to our time spent here” while also being “part of creating solutions to the challenges of this area of responsibility.”

This sentiment was shared across the cohort.

“Partnership between PEP and NPS is hugely beneficial for I Corps and students,” said U.S. Army Maj. Cody Chick, a student at the Naval Post-Graduate School.

Through this partnership, “I Corps is able to effectively dedicate graduate students to invest time and research to consider the challenges and potential opportunities present within the Indo-Pacific and can broaden the Commanding General’s understanding of the problem set…I believe it is exactly what NPS wants for students by having operationally-related research, as it says in its motto, 'Where Science Meets the Art of Warfare.'”

As the operational headquarters of the U.S. Army Pacific Command’s regionally aligned theater Army, I Corps is the ideal organization to lead this exchange of ideas and observations. I Corps maintains a persistent presence beyond the international date line, employing Army forces throughout the region to rapidly respond to crises, support U.S. allies and partners, and protect America's interests through exercises and activities across 21 countries in the Indo-Pacific.

“Getting the opportunity to spend two weeks embedded with I Corps staff and tactical units certainly helped in understanding their focus, issues, and approach to regional threats in the area,” Chick shared. “I might be able to read about the larger problem-sets that operational units deal with, but there is a gap of information that can only be met with being physically present.”

I Corps’ persistent presence west of the international dateline ensures that exchange opportunities for students participating in the Pacific Exchange Program are varied across nations, cultures, and geography.

While the program offers an excellent opportunity for students to learn from units in the field and gain experience to take back to the classroom to apply to their lessons, many shared the sentiment that the Pacific Exchange Program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve their knowledge while also improving the wider joint force.

“It’s the kind of experience where you strive to soak in every aspect and glean as much knowledge as possible,” said Boss.

Though named for two oceans consisting of islands and archipelagos, the Indo-Pacific is more than a maritime theater; it is a joint theatre requiring the joint force to work together to meet and overcome enduring and emerging challenges throughout the region. Programs like the Pacific Exchange Program are one way I Corps incorporates unique talent across the Indo-Pacific to consolidate lessons learned, share knowledge, build experience, and prepare the force for the future.