The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is one of the world’s largest military exercises, held biannually by the United States Navy (USN) since 1971 in its Hawaiian and southern Californian training areas, usually with participation from several Pacific partner countries. On June 27th, the latest edition was underway and the exercise is expected to end today, on August 2nd, 2018. With more than 50 naval vessels deployed this year, RIMPAC 2018 is one of the largest and most ambitious yet in this long-standing series of exercises.
There are some notable changes from previous editions of RIMPAC, however. As reported widely in the media, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was “disinvited” due to China’s “continued militarization of the South China Sea“. This follows participation by Chinese naval assets in the 2014 and 2016 editions of RIMPAC, which was seen to some extent as an effective means of building trust and confidence between the USN, PLAN, and regional navies. However, it is worthwhile noting that Chinese deployments were relatively limited, with the contribution in 2016 consisting of one Luyang II-class destroyer, one Jiangkai II-class frigate, one Qiandaohu-class replenishment ship, one Type-926 submarine support ship, and the Peace Ark hospital ship. The Chinese contribution to RIMPAC 2014 was also joined by a Type 815 Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessel, which was not invited to participate but nonetheless proceeded to monitor signals and other communications from RIMPAC participants while remaining near the island of Oahu. With progress stalled on a South China Sea Code of Conduct, though, there are some understandable doubts as to whether Chinese inclusion in RIMPAC was having any effect on China’s political leadership and their willingness to employ military force in support of territorial expansion.
Just as importantly, however, the Indonesian Navy has expanded its involvement, deploying its new Dutch-designed Martadinata-class frigate, KRI Raden Eddy Martadinata, as well as the landing platform dock KRI Makassar. Commissioned in 2017, the Martadinata-class frigate joining the exercise is a milestone for Indonesia’s campaign to modernize and expand its maritime forces in response to increased illegal fishing from Chinese vessels in or near Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Meanwhile, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Israel joined RIMPAC for the first time, although the Israeli Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy contributed only staff officers to the exercise. The deployment of several Vietnamese naval vessels to a future edition of RIMPAC will be crucial to U.S. alliance-building efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. Interestingly, regarding the Sri Lankan contribution, the force was comprised of 19 members of the Sri Lanka Navy’s marine battalion, who received training from the United States Marine Corps (USMC) during RIMPAC, continuing a relationship between the two forces that began in 2016 with the original members of this Sri Lankan unit being trained largely by the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of the USMC.
RIMPAC 2018 also heavily emphasized the multi-domain capabilities of the U.S. and its allies. A “Sinking Exercise” (SINKEX) held on July 12 saw U.S., Japanese, and Australian forces sink a decommissioned amphibious ship with air- and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, ground-launched cruise missiles, land-based artillery and rocket systems, and a submarine-launched torpedo. Of particular note, the hulk was hit with a Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a land-based anti-ship weapon jointly developed by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA) with a range of over 500 kilometres. Showcasing this weapon and others at the SINKEX may have been intended to demonstrate to China that it does not have the monopoly on Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. For example, China has touted its Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) as a potential means to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, with several of these missiles stationed at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in northern Guangdong province, leaving many contest islands within range. The DF-21D has a far greater range than the NSM, however, and so SINKEX also demonstrates the need for the U.S. and its allies to catch-up to China’s progress in asymmetric maritime warfare.
Live-fire from aircraft, a submarine, and land-based assets including High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (M142 HIMARS), and Type 12 Surface-to-Ship Missiles sink the decommissioned ex-USS Racine (LST-1191) July 12 off the coast of Hawaii.
In any case, RIMPAC 2018 (and the politics surrounding it) will be the subject of much discussion and analysis in the months to come. As the first such exercise to be held since the introduction of the “Indo-Pacific” concept by the Trump Administration, it has highlighted some of the challenges facing its implementation. On the one hand, disinviting China showed the US’ willingness to pursue this concept of Indo-Pacific security and take a harder position on China’s activities in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Indian Navy’s deployment of a lone frigate, INS Sahyadri, might represent India’s scepticism about the concept or simply the Indian Navy’s lack of preparedness to undertake such sustained, long-range operations.