Approaching from the Hawaii coast, the mosquito-shaped helicopter buzzed around this guided-missile cruiser twice before swooping toward the landing pad. The Navy crew on the deck crouched, the helmeted faces betraying more than routine concern as the aircraft, flown by a pilot who had never before alighted upon a ship, hovered a foot off the tarmac and then set down with a thud.

The sailors’ trepidation was prompted by three words painted in black block letters on the drab olive fuselage: United States Army.

The Army, which fights on terra firma, does not usually land its helicopters on ships — the domain of the Navy and the Marine Corps — but these are not usual times in the U.S. military. As the Obama administration winds down the Army-centric war in Afghanistan, Pentagon leaders are seeking to place the Air Force, Navy and Marines in dominant roles to counter threats in the Asia-Pacific region, which they have deemed to be the nation’s next big national security challenge.

Fearful that the new strategy will cut its share of the defense budget, the Army is launching an ambitious campaign to transform itself and assert its relevance in the Pacific. And that, in turn, is drawing the Army into a fight.

With the Marines.

A comparison of U.S. Army and Marine strength in the Pacific Rim

Calculating that there are only slim chances of the Army fighting a big land war anywhere in the Far East other than the Korean Peninsula, the new top Army commander in the Pacific, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, wants his forces to more quickly and effectively respond to small conflicts, isolated acts of aggression and natural disasters. Doing so, however, has traditionally been a challenge for the Army, which bases most of its soldiers assigned to the Orient in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington state. To overcome what he calls “the tyranny of distance,” Brooks is trying to make his forces more maritime and expeditionary.

To cut travel time and increase regional familiarity, he is seeking authorization to send key elements of a U.S.-based infantry brigade to Asia and keep them there for months at a time, moving every few weeks to different nations to conduct training exercises. The rotating deployment, which amounts to the first proposed increase in U.S. forces in Asia in years, could enable the Army to move more speedily to address humanitarian crises and security threats.

Brooks said he wants “a capable force that can respond to a variety of contingencies” — rapidly. “Forces that are already in motion have an advantage in responding,” he said.

The initiative, which Brooks is calling “Pacific Pathways,” is also an opportunity to recast the Army’s image in Washington, yielding television images of soldiers — not just Marines and sailors — responding to typhoons and cyclones. “We can no longer afford to build [combat] units and put them on a shelf to be used only in the event of war,” Brooks’s command wrote in an internal planning document.

To the Marine Corps, however, Brooks is committing the military equivalent of copyright infringement. Marines regard themselves as the nation’s first — and only — maritime infantry force. They have troops in Asia that are not tied down in Korea — three infantry battalions, an aviation wing and a full logistics group based on the Japanese island of Okinawa — and, they note, they have an expeditionary unit that sails around Asia to conduct bilateral exercises and respond to crises. Those Marines were among the first to respond to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last month.

“They’re trying to create a second Marine Corps in the Pacific,” said a Marine general, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Army’s internal plans. “To save their budget, they want to build a force the nation doesn’t need.”

Okinawa’s governor on Friday acceded to U.S. plans to maintain a large Marine contingent on the island, despite local opposition, by approving site preparation for a new air base on the less-
populated northern half of the island. To win permission, the Marines have pledged to relocate almost 5,000 personnel to the U.S. territory of Guam, about 1,400 miles away, which could bolster the Army’s case for a small rotating force closer to mainland Asia.

The Army-Marine fight has profound implications for both services. If Brooks succeeds, Army leaders would lay claim to a new strategic narrative and gain a powerful argument to stave off additional rounds of personnel cuts, while the Marines could face an existential crisis without their exclusive expeditionary status. If he doesn’t, the Army, which is planning to shrink from 540,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017, could become even smaller.

“The Army is in genuine crisis at the moment,” said Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who has served as director of defense strategy on the National Security Council. “They’re grasping for a mission to justify their end-strength.”

Both sides see the battle in winner-­take-all terms: The administration’s national security strategy and the Pentagon’s strategic guidance to commanders have all but rejected the sorts of troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns waged by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they call for a focus on Asia to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The documents envision not a head-on war with China but the need to be able to confront Chinese efforts to control shipping lanes and seize disputed territory with a combination of air and naval power — and an agile, fast-moving ground combat force.

“There is no doubt about the need for expeditionary, amphibious troops,” a senior Defense Department official said. “The question is whether we need the Army to provide that capability.”

Reclaiming ground

For decades, Asia was the Army’s domain. It was the first service to establish a base in Hawaii. During World War II, the Army deployed five times as many troops to the Pacific theater as the Marines, and it was the Army that took the lead in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“The Army’s history in the Pacific has been long — and unbroken,” Brooks said.

But in the 1970s, the Army scaled back its presence across the Far East, save for South Korea, to focus on defending Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. It left the continent to the Navy, Air Force and Marines. The Marines have about 24,000 uniformed personnel west of the International Date Line — most of them based on Okinawa — while the Army has fewer than 2,500 outside Korea.

For years, that disparity did not bother Army leaders, who regarded Asia as far less important than the Middle East. China was not a global power. There were wars to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. For much of the past decade, the Army’s troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy was the flavor of choice in the Pentagon.

No longer. As the administration began to pivot toward Asia, the other services, burned by the Army’s claim on post-Sept. 11 defense spending, saw an opening. They formulated an Asia-centric strategy called “air-sea battle,” which calls for the Navy, Air Force and Marines to play the leading role in responding to China’s rise. The strategy assumes that the United States is unlikely to need to wage a protracted ground war in East Asia; instead, it envisions the use of Air Force stealth fighter-­bombers, Navy littoral ships and Marine amphibious forces to respond to crises.

“Air-sea battle is an essential part of sustaining America’s military freedom of action and ability to project power,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, wrote last year with his then-Air Force counterpart, Gen. Norton Schwartz, in the magazine American Interest.

The Army, distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan, initially scoffed at air-sea battle. Its strategists — convinced that the most likely venue for America’s next war will be in the Middle East, not in Asia — offered up an alternative called “strategic land power” that would serve its interests in justifying large infantry and armor units. But top officials in the White House and Pentagon have been unswayed, prompting worry within the Army that it would be the principal loser in the next big war — the battle over the defense budget.

As a consequence, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno has opted to turn westward. One of his first moves was to elevate the job of leading Army forces in the Pacific to a four-star position, a higher rank than for any other Army geographic command. Odierno selected Brooks, a distinguished infantry officer who had been commanding Army forces in the Middle East, to assume the challenge.

The distance factor

Tall and lean, Brooks became a television star in the opening weeks of the Iraq war in 2003, when he conducted many of the military’s daily news briefings detailing the march to Baghdad. His ability to convey U.S. strategy in an engaging, charismatic way is a tailored fit for the Pacific job, which involves more military diplomacy than traditional lead-the-troops generalship.

An initial focus has been to build army-to-army rapport. Although six of the world’s 10 largest armies are in the Pacific, and most of the militaries in the region are led by army generals, the top U.S. military officer in the region — the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command — has always been a Navy admiral. U.S. Army officials believe an Army four-star general may be able to forge closer bonds with Asian army leaders.

“There’s a shared understanding as army commanders,” Brooks said.

One of his first priorities was to ensure that Army units assigned to the Pacific actually focused on it. For the past decade, the Army’s 1st Corps, based in Washington state, and its subordinate divisions, including the 7th Infantry and the 25th Infantry, were sent on multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Officers paid little attention to events in Asia, and their soldiers came to expect a year’s notice before deployment, as well as a full component of equipment at their destination. “We completely lost the part of the Army’s culture that was expeditionary,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller, commander of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.

Over the past year, the Pentagon has exempted Army units in the Pacific from further Afghanistan rotations. That has prompted major changes in training and planning. The 25th Infantry, which no longer subjects its soldiers to desert drills, plans to reopen a jungle warfare school on the Hawaiian island of Oahu that has been closed since the Vietnam War. The division has also devised plans to send small teams — including engineers, medical personnel and communications technicians — on planes to Asia within 24 hours to respond to natural disasters. “We’re going to be adaptable and scalable,” Fuller said. “And fast.”

No matter how ready they are, though, troops from the 25th face a long flight from their bases in Hawaii and Alaska. Soldiers from the 7th must travel all the way from the coast of Washington state.

The distance was driven home to Army officers at an annual exercise with the Japanese military this month on the snowy island of Hokkaido. In responding to a scenario in which the northern half of the island was invaded, the allies mapped out their respective responses. On the U.S. side, the elements of the 25th would land on the fourth day of the counter­attack. The Marines were slated to arrive a day earlier.

To overcome distance-related delays, Brooks is pushing his Pacific Pathways initiative, which would keep a rotating unit of about 700 soldiers, plus a contingent of helicopters, on a circuit in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

He envisions piggybacking off existing military exercises — instead of flying troops back and forth from the United States for each visit, the soldiers would move from one country to another, spending four to six more weeks in each nation at the beginning and end of the training sessions.

If a natural disaster strikes, or there is another need for U.S. ground troops, Army leaders would seek to quickly divert those soldiers. “If your brigade is on the way to Malaysia and a typhoon hits the Philippines,” said Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown, the commander of 1st Corps, “you can take a left turn and there you are.”

Plenty of obstacles

As his two-seat OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter approached the USS Lake Erie, Lt. Col. George Ferido looked down at the deck. He was flying one the Army’s smallest helicopters, and, from afar, it seemed too big for the ship. “We’re landing on that thing?” he muttered to himself as he eased down the collective lever to descend.

A minute later, he did. Flawlessly. On a deck that was big enough.

The landing, however, turned out to be the easy part. Unlike Navy and Marine helicopters, Army birds do not have brakes to quickly stop the rotors, forcing Ferido to sit in his aircraft for several minutes. Plans to gas up his Kiowa were foiled because of a problem connecting to the ship’s fuel hose. And when the deck crew decided to pull the helicopter into the hangar, the sailors discovered that the front blade, which cannot quickly fold like those on Navy helicopters, was going to strike a metal support beam.

So the crew members improvised. They found a pillow-size piece of padding and affixed it to the blade with duct tape.

“Careful,” a sailor called out to his shipmates. “We’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole.”

Army aviators are confident that they can work out the kinks and commence frequent shipboard operations. “It will give us a huge new capability across the Pacific,” said Col. Kenneth A. Hawley, commander of the 25th Infantry’s combat aviation brigade.

Marine officers are less optimistic. They point to the waters off Haiti in the mid-1990s — the last time that the Army flew its helicopters on and off ships. Several Army aircraft were so badly corroded by saltwater that they had to be junked.

The implementation of Brooks’s Pathways plan is shaping up to be an even larger challenge. Although he and other Army officials emphasized the potential savings from the program because of fewer transcontinental flights to move troops, Army planning documents project that the overall initiative will cost about $45 million more than the Army currently spends on military exercises in the Pacific.

Keeping hundreds of soldiers on bases in other nations, even if only for a month or two, could spark anti-American sentiment and unnerve host governments. This month, the Army shared its plans with U.S. ambassadors in the region, with the hope that they will help sell it in the countries they are stationed in.

“We’re sensitive to the politics,” Brooks said. He noted that Marine expeditionary units, which conduct similar training exercises, are based aboard amphibious assault ships that can “quickly move away if you cause concern or excitement that you didn’t want.”

Those obstacles are worth overcoming, in the view of Army leaders, if soldiers can get closer to the action — an imperative laid bare by last month’s typhoon in the Philippines. A 70-person advance team from the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived less than 24 hours after the Philippine government requested U.S. military assistance. Within three days, the Marine response increased to more than 2,000 troops — 1,200 of whom were on Philippine soil.

Using their own helicopters and cargo aircraft, the Marine brigade moved about 2,000 tons of relief supplies to storm-racked areas before handing off the assistance effort to a larger U.S. task force comprising troops from all four services.

Marine officers say their response was aided by experience: In April, the brigade conducted exercises with the Philippine military and met many of the same Philippine troops who later were involved in the typhoon relief. “We had a personal relationship,” said Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, the top Marine commander in Asia. “That’s the value of being forward-deployed.”

Brooks scoffs at Marine complaints that he is trying to make his soldiers more like Marines. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted, Marines were stationed in the desert, far from water, and operated in ways similar to soldiers.

“Did it look a little bit like the Army?” he said. “I’m ready for someone to say that the Marines and the Army have lots in common.”

But, he said, “we also have lots of things that aren’t in common,” including more sophisticated attack helicopters, more small surveillance drones and more advanced medical evacuation crews.

“We’re looking for complementarity,” he said. “There’s plenty of work to be done in the Pacific.”