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FRONTLINE IN THE NEWS

May 06, 2020

As the world's largest international maritime exercise,  RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) has been providing a unique training opportunity while fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships between participants critical to ensuring the safety of sea-lanes and security on the world's oceans since 1971. 

The Canadian Armed Forces has long appreciated the value of the biennial U.S. Navy-led RIMPAC war games, having been involved from the first one near a half-century ago. Plans are underway for CAF participation in this year’s "scaled down" version of the world’s largest international military exercise under constraints imposed by COVID-19.


Archive photo of RIMPAC 2016 (Photo: Royal New Zealand Navy)

Still Hawaii-centric, RIMPAC 2020 is scheduled for 17-31 August 2020 and the U.S. is focusing on mainly maritime and air operations in a bid to minimize land-based elements’ exposure to a potential second or even third wave of the pandemic.

This year’s constrained approach was put together by Admiral John Aquilino, a former carrier-based F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Hornet pilot and Commander of the U.S. Navy (USN) Pacific Fleet since May 2018. However, the exercise itself will be overseen by Vice-Admiral Scott Conn, another former Hornet pilot and now Commander of the USN 3rd Fleet since September 2019.

RIMPAC 2018 involved more than two dozen countries, but the size of the upcoming iteration remains uncertain.

As for today’s “challenging times,” as Aquilino put it in a recent statement, “it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters,.”

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, which shares runways with Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, will be accessible for logistics support, with what the USN describes as “a minimal footprint” footprint ashore for command and control, logistics, and other support elements.

A statement from the USN explains the key modifications. The exercise is being reduced to two weeks, from 17-31 August (instead of the usual five weeks that typically run from late June to early August). No drills will be held ashore this year.

Hawaii Governor David Ige has said he is pleased with the postponement and keeping all drills at sea. He said in a statement that he will reassess and respond appropriately if conditions change.

“We remain committed to and capable of safeguarding allies and partners throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” Aquilino said. “The flexible approach […] strikes the right balance between combatting future adversaries and the COVID-19 threat.”

That said, the USN foresees anti-submarine warfare (ASW), maritime intercepts, and live-fire training events, but that could change with evolving circumstances.

The RIMPAC series is deemed to be as close to combat as it gets. For example, RIMPAC 2012 saw the live-fire torpedo sinking, by Canadian submarine Victoria, of a decommissioned USN ship in 15,480 feet of water southwest of Kauai.

Acknowledging RIMPAC’s value, Canada's Department of National Defence (DND) confirmed to FrontLine that it remains committed “in a significant way in order to maximize the unique training opportunities […] as well as strengthen relationships with allies and partners.”

Over the next three months or so, it plans to remain in “close communication with our U.S. counterparts” while considering CAF options. “Participation in RIMPAC will balance the requirement to complete critical tasks and high readiness training in support of planned operations, with the requirement to protect the health and safety of our personnel,” noted the DND spokesperson.


This 2012 archive photo shows Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules air-to-air refueller crew members from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, Winnipeg, Manitoba fly over the Pacific Ocean near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in Honolulu, Hawaii, during RIMPAC 2012. (DND Photo: Cplc Marc-Andre Gaudreault)

Australia, the only other country besides Canada which has been a consistent participant over the last 49 years, is still considering its options. An Australia Defence spokesperson in Canberra told FrontLine that while it is “adjusting a range of plans and commitments,” it agrees that RIMPAC is an “opportunity to share knowledge and expertise and cultivate ties with the armed forces of Pacific Rim countries, which in turn helps Australia promote security and stability in the […] Indo-Pacific region.”

Other RIMPAC participants have included, at various times, Britain, Brunei, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga and Vietnam.

While obviously useful to other NATO allies, the preponderance of Asia-Pacific countries reflects the Pacific Rim’s importance for international trade, and its sheer size means it’s simply too big for any one country to monitor, underscoring the need for a multinational approach.

Held in Hawaii and southern California, RIMPAC 2018 involved 25 countries, 46 surface ships, five submarines, 17 land forces and more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.

Training scenarios included ASW, marine interdiction and minesweeping as well as command and control and communication (C3) operations. RCN clearance divers conducted explosive ordnance disposal and salvage operations with other divers.

The Royal Canadian Navy sent 675 members aboard four frigates as well as the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ship Asterix

The Royal Canadian Air Force deployed approximately 45 members and a Lockheed Martin CP-140 Aurora patrol platform which flew more than a dozen ASW missions. Some 170 Canadian Army soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment, joined a combined Marine Air-Ground Task Force in California in live-fire events and amphibious assaults, among other things. The CAF presence also involved a 42-strong command and support team and 120 headquarters support personnel.


Archive Photo RIMPAC 2016: Snipers, Pathfinders and Reconnaissance members, from 2e Bataillon Royal 22e Régiment, conduct insertion and extraction by helicopter training with a Royal Canadian Air Force CH-147F Chinook helicopter at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. (DND Photo: Sgt Marc-André Gaudreault

Canada’s component in 2016 was similar but the RCAF’s role was significantly different in that included not only a CP-140 but also eight Boeing CF-188 Hornets and a Lockheed Martin CC-130 Hercules transport as well as six helicopters: four Bell CH-146 Griffons and two Boeing CH-147 Chinooks.

When it comes to career advancement, a successful RIMPAC evidently is a good thing to have in an officer’s resume.

RCN RAdm Bob Auchterlonie, currently Commander Forces Pacific at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, B.C., was deputy commander of the combined task force for RIMPAC 2018 under U.S. VAdm John Alexander.

Captain (Navy) Matthew Coates, who was Deputy Commander (DC) of the 2018 Combined Maritime Component, now is RCN Director of Naval Strategy; Col Michael Atkins, DC of the Combined Air Component, now is a Commander and Defence Advisor at  a London since last August; Col Dennis O’Reilly, Combined Air Operations Centre Director, now is Director of Fleet Readiness; and Navy Captain Matthew Bowen, 3rd Fleet Deputy Exercise Director, now is Commander of the Sea Training Group.

RIMPAC 2012 saw a significant shift in the RIMPAC command structure when non-U.S. officers were in key command positions for the first time. One of them was then RCAF BGen Mike Hood, whose role as commander of the Combined Air Operations Centre had him overseeing a huge mixed fleet of surveillance aircraft, bombers, fighters and other aircraft.

Hood retired from the CAF in 2018 but not before he became Director of the CAF’s Strategic Joint Staff the year after RIMPAC and then RCAF Commander in 2015.

Smooth interoperability makes for a successful exercise of RIMPAC’s scale. “In today’s world, “we need as many friends as we can get; everything that we’re going to do, we’re not going to do alone,” he said shortly after returning to Ottawa. “When I say ‘we’, I don’t necessarily mean Canada per se; I mean like-minded countries and allies. So being interoperable as we can be is key.”

Not much, if anything, has changed since then. In fact, when it comes to the Pacific and the evolving issues with China and other players in the region, interoperability is even more critical at a time when economic weakness can be perceived as strategic vulnerability.


Archive photo RIMPAC 2018: Navy vessels from multiple nations assemble off the coast of Hawaii during the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018. Comprised of more than 45 ships and submarines, about 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel, 26 nations are participated in RIMPAC from 27 June to 2 August 2018. The exercise took place in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. (U.S. Navy photo: MSC3 Dylan M. Kinee)

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Ken Pole
© Frontline 2020

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