Asia Defense

RIMPAC 2016: Bringing China Closer While Displaying Combat Prowess

The exercise encourages partnership and understanding but also shows off important new capabilities.

RIMPAC 2016: Bringing China Closer While Displaying Combat Prowess

USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and HMCS Calgary (FF 335) Underway during RIMPAC 2016.

Credit: US Navy

The U.S. Pacific Fleet-sponsored Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise known as “RIMPAC,” wraps up this week off the coasts of Hawaii and Southern California. For the last five weeks, 45 surface ships, five submarines, over 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel from 26 countries have conducted drills and exercises ranging from disaster response and maritime security operations to sea control and complex warfighting. Several participants, like Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Norway, are not traditional Pacific nations, while others like France, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have colonial legacies in the region and exercised alongside former subjects who are now naval powers themselves. For all participants, RIMPAC is an opportunity to hone planning, operational, and combat skills while building interoperability, understanding, and partnerships with other nations. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift said the exercise helps participants cement “the norms, standards, rules, and laws that have provided the great stability and security, the foundation for prosperity, that we all enjoy the last 70 years.” For the United States, it also provided a platform to showcase new warfighting and support capabilities, while expanding non-combat cooperation with China.

RIMPAC saw the demonstration of a wide collection of new combat capabilities and interoperability with partners, from multinational integrated theater missile defense, a coordinated, multinational amphibious assault beach landing, and the use of drones to spot Marine artillery and air support. But two U.S. capabilities stand out in their importance and signaling to potential adversaries in the Pacific: a credible anti-ship capability for the Littoral Combat Ship and the ability for U.S. Navy refueling ships to replenish themselves at sea without having to return to port.

The United States used RIMPAC to conduct the first-ever test shot of a Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile from a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The LCS has been criticized for lacking a potent anti-ship capability and the USS Coronado’s successful launch (though the missile failed to hit its target) proved that the LCS can handle the Harpoon launcher without additional structural modification. The Navy is wasting no time making this until-now theoretical capability an operational one. With this proof-of-concept success the Coronado will sail directly to the Western Pacific upon completion of the exercise armed with four Harpoon missiles. Last year, the LCS USS Fort Worth was apparently shadowed by a Chinese Type 054A frigate while patrolling near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese warship was far more heavily armed than the Fort Worth, carrying heavier guns and anti-ship missiles, while the LCS carried a smaller gun and no anti-ship capable missiles. The RIMPAC demonstration thus debuted a major new LCS combat capability in an exercise attended by the Chinese Navy and other Southeast Asian navies just before deploying to region.

The U.S. Navy also demonstrated another new capability that could prove even more critical in an extended conflict. Napoleon apocryphally claimed that in war, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. This year the U.S. Navy has quietly revived a fallow logistics capability called Fuel Consolidation (CONSOL) and put it on display at RIMPAC when a Navy Fleet Oiler replenished its own fuel stocks from a chartered oil tanker. Since before WWII, the U.S. Navy’s Combat Logistics Force (CLF), a fleet of replenishment ships, has provided fuel, food, ordnance, spare parts, mail, and other critical supplies, “enabling the fleet to remain at sea, on station and combat ready for extended periods of time.” Relieving the warfighting fleet from having to take time “off station” to pull into a port for supplies enables a more persistent force projection capability and allows the U.S. Navy to do more with fewer ships (Japan’s wartime leader, General Hideki Tojo, supposedly called this underway replenishment capability one of the three main factors in the U.S. victory in the Pacific). But those resupply vessels must still pull into port to resupply themselves before returning to the fleet. Now the Navy’s floating gas stations are proving they can remain on station by refilling their own fuel stocks from other tankers. This could significantly extend the fleet’s ability to stay at sea conducting operations at a time when some worry the Navy’s logistics capacity is too small to meet future challenges in the Pacific.

But RIMPAC is not just about flexing combat or logistics prowess; it is also an opportunity to expand cooperation with potential competitors. Interactions between the U.S. and Chinese navies have been especially fraught since the U.S. began conducting Freedom of Navigation operations near China’s reclaimed South China Sea bases last year. Amid calls within China’s military for more forceful responses to the U.S. Navy’s presence, it seems unlikely the two countries would be partners in combat operations in the near term. Nonetheless, by cooperating in non-combat areas, the two navies can help ensure that less-friendly interactions remain professional and safe. To that end, the United States conducted exclusive drills with the Chinese RIMPAC contingent during its transit from China to the Hawaii exercise area. During RIMPAC the U.S. and China collaborated in drills to rescue sailors from a disabled submarine and a forum on providing medical assistance and disaster relief, as well as drills for counterpiracy, diving and salvage, and search and rescue.

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Earlier this year, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and East China Sea motivated wide calls to disinvite them from the RIMPAC exercise. However, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter emphasized that the U.S. approach to security in the Pacific was based on inclusion and participation, and that even if many U.S. partners were motivated out of concern over Chinese moves, “we’re still taking the approach of, everybody ought to work together here… instead of standing apart from everybody and isolating yourself and excluding yourself, try to be a part of the system of cooperative nations that have made… the Asian miracle possible.” As the 2016 RIMPAC comes to a close, Chinese participation appears to have served two ends in the U.S. approach to China: providing a forum for inclusion, cooperation, and understanding, as well as an opportunity to display new capabilities the United States and its allies can bring to a regional conflict as a reminder that peace is in everyone’s interest.