The United States is ''refocusing on the importance of the Pacific after having turned its back on the area following the trauma of the Vietnam war,'' Adm. Robert Long says.
The ''unparalleled growth of Soviet military power in the Far East'' and the growing political and economic importance of Asia have caused the US to ''recognize the priority of its security interest'' in the vast region, the four-star admiral said in a recent interview.
From his office on Halewa Heights overlooking Pearl Harbor, Admiral Long commands American land, sea, and air units in the Pacific and Indian oceans and regions bordering thereon. His territory includes waters that make up 70 percent of the world's oceans. Sixty percent of the world's population lives in areas bordering these oceans. Admiral Long's official title is Commander in Chief Pacific. He is about to retire after four years in the post.
The Soviet Union's growing nuclear capacity is the most threatening aspect of Moscow's steady military buildup in the Far East, Pacific command sources say. The Kremlin has deployed at least 120 SS-20 triple-headed, nuclear-tipped mobile missiles east of the Ural mountains. Most are targeted on China, but the arc of countries threatened by the SS-20 includes Japan and encompasses most of Southeast Asia. Pacific command sources say they would not be surprised if SS-20 s began to be deployed in areas close to the Bering Sea and Alaska, thus posing a direct land-based threat to the United States.
Soviet land, sea, and air forces are being continuously strengthened and upgraded, these sources say. They note the deployment of Delta III ballistic missile submarines which can reach almost the entire continental US from lairs close to Soviet shores. They note the steady increase of nuclear attack submarines, threatening sea lanes in the Pacific and Indian oceans, especially the oil route from the Middle East.
They note the daily presence of up to 20 Soviet surface ships and four to six submarines in the Vietnamese port of Cam Ranh, which in Admiral Long's words is yet another reminder of the ''Soviet capability to threaten sea lines of communication.''
In Admiral Long's view, the Soviet threat is not simply military. In fact, in his opinion the purely military aspect of the threat is ''somewhat overworked.'' Rather, the admiral says, the world should focus on the fact that Soviet foreign policy objectives have been consistent since Lenin and include both the ''imperialistic expansionism dominant in the tsarist days'' and Marxist-Leninist ideology according to which ''war is the natural state between nations, being merely an extension of war between the classes.''
At the same time, Admiral Long said, the ''Soviet leadership is basically pragmatic and cautious,'' so that if the free world nations have ''sufficient military strength to underpin their political will and resolve, there is no reason we cannot continue indefinitely to have peace in the world.'' That is why it is so important, in the admiral's view, not to allow a ''military asymmetry'' to develop between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Among Pacific rim nations, Admiral Long sees a growing awareness of the nature of the Soviet menace and a clearer recognition that ''the confrontation is not just between the United States and the Soviet Union,'' that as free, independent countries they, too, ''have a stake in this confrontation.''
As an example, the admiral said, the Japan-US defense relationship today is ''stronger than it has ever been.'' ''We are doing things that would not have been possible four years ago,'' he said.
Admiral Long places China in a totally different category from Japan in terms of security relations with the US. With China, he said, ''the security relationship is essentially nonexistent other than that both China and the US perceive a serious threat from the Soviet Union. I would expect the overall relationship (with China) would continue to be friendly.'' He hoped the Sino-American tie would grow where dialogue is possible, in the economic and technical fields rather than in the military area.
Meanwhile the US has not been standing still, the admiral said. There had been significant changes in the American military posture during the past four years. The number and quality of armed forces personnel had improved ''dramatically,'' resulting in ''higher discipline, better morale, a higher state of training,'' - all adding up to ''significantly increased combat power.''
The Reagan administration's large defense budgets have helped to improve sustainability in combat. Billions of dollars, the admiral said, have been poured into ammunition, fuel, and spare parts. There has been a growth in the number of modern combat and support ships, as well as new tactical missiles.
Finally, Admiral Long said, the Pacific Fleet's carrier battle groups ''are the most important force in the Pacific today.'' The admiral admitted there is a continuing controversy about the vulnerability of these forces. But he stressed the importance, in a regional confrontation, of having ''an option other than that of initiating a nuclear holocaust.''