Despite the flight deck of the aircraft carrier being a hive of activity, all the movements function with well-orchestrated precision. Dressed in colour-coded uniforms that include cranials and float coats, each American sailor busily goes about his or her business of launching and recovering aircraft aboard the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). As the catapult shuttle is attached to the front wheel of an F/A-18E Super Hornet of VFA-147 “Argonauts,” the jet blast deflector is raised into position behind the fighter. As the pilot throttles the powerful jet engines, the officer in the catapult control pod releases the catapult’s steam pistons.
The F/A-18 screams forward with growing velocity as the steam-driven catapult hurls it off the flight deck, propelled from standstill to more than 250km/h in approximately two seconds. Loaded with munitions, the Super Hornet soars into the air, its twin exhaust nozzles glowing bright orange.
Even as the last fighter is launched into the air, a collection of F/A-18E fighters, E-2 Hawkeyes and a C-2 Greyhound stack up and circle the carrier awaiting their turn to land. Landing on the flight deck of a carrier is an operation fraught with danger, because the deck is just 150m long. The first Super Hornet swoops in, its tailhook extended ready to snag one of the arresting wires that will bring the aircraft to a rapid stop. However, this one is a “bolter”, with the pilot missing all four of the arresting cables. With engines at full power, the pilot takes off from the deck and circles around for another attempt.
This time the tailhook catches the optimal third wire, and with jet engines screaming at full power, the arresting system does its job. The aircraft decelerates from 240km/h to a full stop in just two seconds. Immediately the plane is herded off the landing strip and chained down, and the crewmen hustle to get ready for the next landing that is just seconds away.
This hectic action aboard the USS Ronald Reagan was one part of the RIMPAC 2010 exercise that media were able to witness firsthand. RIMPAC, an abbreviation for “Rim of the Pacific,” is the world’s largest international naval exercise, and it took place throughout the month of July 2010. Taking place every two years in the waters surrounding Hawaii, Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter was in attendance for the 22nd iteration of RIMPAC. This year, international participants included (in alphabetical order): Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia*, France*, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia*, the Netherlands, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand*, Tonga* and the USA (an asterix denotes a first-time participant). Several nations also attended as observers - namely Brazil, India and New Zealand - with the possibility of their being involved in future years. Russia was invited but declined to attend. With the thawing of military relations between the USA and NZ, it is highly likely the Royal New Zealand Navy will be keen to get involved in coming years.
Hawaii is a prime location for a naval exercise. Located 3,200km from the US mainland, and 8,528km from Manila in the Philippines, the US state is surrounded by ocean. There is a large military presence on Hawaii, with 1.3 people in every hundred residents being a member of the US Armed Forces. The exercise made use of the extensive military training areas that the islands offer – Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF), Hickam Air Force Base, Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH), Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station, Bellows Air Force Station, the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), and Schofield Barracks.
Objectives and challenges
RIMPAC is hosted by the Third Fleet of the US Navy, but it also involves the US Marine Corps (USMC), US Air Force (USAF) and US Coast Guard (USCG). Statistics for the maritime exercise are impressive in scale: 32 ships, 5 submarines, 170 aircraft and 20,000 personnel. The Commander, Combined Task Force (CCTF) of RIMPAC was Vice Admiral Richard Hunt, the US Navy’s Third Fleet Commander normally based in San Diego, California.
The USA explains the reason for hosting RIMPAC in the following way: “RIMPAC enhances maritime security and promotes stability in the Pacific Rim region by allowing partner nations from throughout the Pacific to train together. Interoperability of all partner nations is a key element of regional security.” Thus, a primary objective is enhancing interoperability between the USA and its allies in the Pacific region. At the same time, there is a desire to improve the war-fighting competencies of individual participants. This year’s theme was listed as “Combined agility, synergy and support.”
Before RIMPAC can begin in earnest, a lot of work goes into coordinating communication systems between all the various vessels and nations that are represented. This is important from a tactical as well as a safety angle, and one in which the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) plays an important role. CENTRIXS offers secure channels for sharing text- and web-based information in real time. Still in constant development, this computer network is a primary information exchange system for ships and headquarters from the USA and its major allies.
Interoperability is further enhanced by multinational component staffs, and inserting personnel aboard naval vessels from other countries. One senior US Navy officer explained that establishing workable communication links between all the participants was one of the greatest challenges of this type of exercise. The complexities can be seen when it is learned that only one of the Indonesian party, for example, was able to communicate in English!
Air force and naval assets operated in multinational task groups, and they practised actions across all kinds of threat spectrums. In light of the recent sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in the waters off South Korea, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was an important element of the exercise. Some submarines played OPFOR, and other task groups had to locate and counter them. The same applied to mines, with forces required to maintain sea lines of communication (SLOC). RIMPAC began with a series of set-pieces and scheduled tasks as part of an overall scenario, before culminating in a week of free play at the end.
This allowed complex rules of engagement to be tested, and logistics and combat service support to be carried out in real time. The firing of weapons (e.g. guns and missiles) took place on regular occasions, allowing individual ships to perform required qualifications. For example, the HMAS Warramunga and HMAS Newcastle from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) fired SM-2 missiles in the PMRF, while the HMAS Warramunga and AP-3C Orions conducted the world’s first combined Harpoon Block II missile firing.
Amphibious landings go back a long way in the USA’s fiftieth state. Hawaii’s first documented contact with Europeans was in 1778 when the British explorer Captain James Cook landed there. In 1779, on his second visit to Hawaii, Captain Cook was killed on a beach along with four of his Royal Marines. RIMPAC 2010 thus continued this long tradition of amphibious landings, although the results were fortunately devoid of tragedy, unlike those of Captain Cook’s party.
Vice Admiral Hunt and his aides revealed to the author that amphibious operations played an important role in RIMPAC 2010, even more so than in recent exercises.
The CCTF explained that ground forces were seen as an integral component of what is essentially a naval exercise. Indeed, a capstone event of RIMPAC was a multinational amphibious landing at Kaneohe Bay on 31 July. For some time now, General James Conway, Commandant of the USMC, has been advocating a return to the fundamental amphibious and expeditionary role of the USMC. After nearly a decade of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the USMC has been operating more as an infantry arm of the US Army, and its amphibious capability has been greatly neglected. Indeed, Brigadier General John Broadmeadow of the USMC, the exercise’s Combined Force Landing Component Commander (CFLCC), wryly related how many of the younger Marines in the exercise have never been on a navy ship, let alone conducted an amphibious landing before. “It’s an important skill that needs to be maintained,” he commented.
Approximately 1,700 US Marines were involved in this year’s training, according to 1Lt Joshua Diddams, the majority of the ground unit being from the 3rd Marine Regiment home-based in Hawaii. There were essentially four companies of ground troops – two from the USMC (including embedded Malaysians, Indonesians and Tongans), one Australian and one Canadian.
Within the exercise scenario, an important four-day experiment was scheduled for the USMC. Conducted by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the experiment revolved around Golf Company from 2/3 Marines trying out new equipment and tactics. Labelled Enhanced Company Operations (ECO) Limited Objective Experiment 4, a prototypical company landing team (CLT) carried out a Ship-To-Objective Manoeuvre (STOM) (i.e. heliborne and amphibious landing) followed by a typical Afghanistan counterinsurgency operation.
The STOM was done over the horizon, because nowadays the threat of anti-ship missiles is just too great to allow vessels to venture close to coastlines. In operational deployments, companies are now performing missions that used to be the preserve of a whole battalion. One key aspect of this experiment was how to enhance and sustain a USMC company to do its job even more efficiently.
This enhanced company from 2/3 Marines had a new table of organisation with an expanded headquarters for its simulated expeditionary mission. The company was equipped with TrellisWare TW-220 tactical handheld radios that formed a mobile, self-forming and self-healing multi-channel communication network, explained Vince Goolding, Director of Experimentation Division at the Warfighting Lab. One aspect of the TW-220 that commanders appreciated was the position location information (PLI) that enabled them to track digitally in actual time where every Marine was, the system updating locations automatically every minute. The TrellisWare radios were used in combination with the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DCTS) that provides over-the-horizon iridium-network communications.
It also provided commanders with grid locations and times of last transmissions for all users. By knowing exactly where all his men are, a commander can do his job better and give timely fire support without fear of fratricide. Speaking of this new communications equipment, Vince Goolding enthused, “We think it’s a game-changer.” In an after-action review (AAR), Marines gave glowing comments about the radio system, but this may be partially due to the fact that individual Marines do not normally carry radio equipment of any type.
Other state-of-the-art equipment included the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS) and Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS). GUSS is based on a 6x6 Polaris all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that has been given a semi-autonomous capability via a “follow-me” mode or via a handheld controller. There is a realisation that non-critical gear needs to be removed from the backs of Marines, and GUSS is one way of doing that by carrying equipment an infantry Marine would normally have to hump himself. Users found GUSS was too noisy for tactical use, but it proved beneficial in carrying supplies or conducting medevac missions.
For example, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher would tie up four Marines, whereas GUSS could achieve the same task autonomously. GUSS is still at an early developmental stage, with a need to improve the vehicle’s sensors and algorithms, but there is hope it will see service as the technology matures. MAARS is a wheeled robot vehicle armed with a remotely fired M240G machine gun, which can be used in situations where soldiers on the ground might otherwise be exposed to unacceptable risk or danger. The ECO experiment of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab was designed to show where capability gaps existed and to answer the question, “Was the juice worth the squeeze?” to use the words of one Marine.
Australia has been a participant in RIMPAC alongside the USA and Canada since the inaugural exercise took place in 1971. This exercise in Hawaii also serves as Australia’s largest international naval exercise commitment, and this year it involved 1,200 Australian servicemen and servicewomen. RAN ships participating in RIMPAC were HMAS Kanimbla, HMAS Newcastle and HMAS Warramunga. Australian Clearance Diving Teams (AUSCDT) 1 and 4 were also involved with 69 personnel; this was the largest contingent of divers that Australia has ever deployed to RIMPAC. An international task group composed of 190 divers from five countries was commanded by Commander Scott Craig, giving Australia a valuable opportunity to command such a diverse multinational group. RIMPAC was also the last overseas exercise for Sea King helicopters of the RAN’s 817 Squadron before they are decommissioned in 2011.
RAAF aircraft also deployed to Hawaii, included AP-3C Orions from No.11 Squadron, supported by personnel from No.92 Wing. AP-3C missions included Undersea Warfare (USW), Surface Unit Warfare (SUW) and Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (MISR) within a multinational exercise environment. The author also spotted a Boeing 737 Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft of No.2 Squadron parked at Hickam Air Force Base. Ground troops included members of 21st Charlie Battalion Company (21C B Coy) from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) based in Townsville.
One of the key skills the Australian contingent was interested in learning from this maritime exercise was amphibious warfare. The RAN will receive the first of two Canberra-class amphibious warfare ships in 2014, and there is much learning that needs to take place before then. Australia was well placed to take advantage of the exercise’s amphibious component, because Commodore Stuart Mayer was Commander of the multinational Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). The ESG included three amphibious ships, up to 15 cruisers and destroyers, related air assets, and contingents of USMC, Australia, Canadian, Indonesian, Malaysian and Tongan personnel. CDRE Mayer stated: “The first of our amphibious ships is scheduled to come into service in only a few years time. That doesn’t give us long to adapt. But from what we have seen at RIMPAC this year, the army is preparing well. They will play a vital role in ensuring a successful transition to a new warfare capability we are all looking forward to.”
At the conclusion of the exercise, CDRE Mayer said, “It is a common cliché to say that every exercise is the best one ever. But in this instance it is very likely true…We have conducted complex war-fighting in a challenging multinational environment. We have definitely got our money’s worth out of RIMPAC.”
The Pacific, particularly the western Pacific, remains an area fraught with danger. There are soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsular with North Korea unrepentant after it torpedoed and sank the ROKS Cheonan in the Yellow Sea on 26 March 2010. Tensions between China and Taiwan remain, plus the USA has finally decided to wade into the row regarding ownership of the South China Sea. The USA is becoming more assertive on the issue of China’s claims over this maritime region that includes the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Hitherto, China has used divide and conquer tactics with individual nations in enforcing its “historic” claim over the South China Sea.
In the face of China’s economic and military might, other claimants such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have lacked any muscle in dealing with this issue. This could begin to change if the USA provides some backbone to these countries in facing up to Chinese dominance.
In the light of such regional and maritime threats in the Pacific region, exercises like RIMPAC rise into sharp focus. Multilateral US alliances that enhance interoperability with countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are needed to counter growing threats in the western Pacific. Although military officials are unwilling to admit it publicly, China’s growing naval might is of great cause for concern, and the US Navy needs to forge strong alliances with regional countries to retain the ascendancy in Pacific waters.
One of the USS Lake Erie’s (CG-70) two 5-inch Mk 45 guns fires a round during a Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) rodeo. (Gordon Arthur)
The innovatively designed USS Freedom (LCS-1) sails through the Pacific Ocean in the blue waters off Hawaii. (Gordon Arthur)
Vice Admiral Richard Hunt chats to soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (2RCR), during training on Big Island. (Gordon Arthur)
Malaysian soldiers from the 9th Royal Malay Regiment perform a drill at the PTA on Big Island. (Gordon Arthur)
With tailhook extended, an F/A-18E Super Hornet from VFA-147 comes in to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). (Gordon Arthur)
Guided by an operator who is walking behind, GUSS carries a simulated casualty during the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab experiment. (Gordon Arthur)