(Barking Sands, Hawaii) — In the first of two scheduled SINKEX (Sinking Exercise), the U.S. Army, Royal Australian Air Force, and Japanese Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces executed a live fire attack on a target ship in waters off the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on the island of Kauai.
The July 12th SINKEX was part of RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) 2018, the world’s largest international maritime military exercise held biennially in Hawaii and Southern California.
The SINKEX employed Gray Eagle UAS (drones), AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, P-3 Orion (Japan GSDF), P-8A Poseidon (Royal Australian Air Force), U.S. HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), Japanese Type 12 surface-to-surface missiles (SSM-12), and a Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missile.
The target was the ex-USS Racine (LST-1191), a decommissioned Newport-class Landing Ship, Tank positioned 55 nautical miles north of Kauai.
With so much firepower unloaded on the “hulk” (as SINKEX targets are called), live fire and inert rockets were first directed at the ship’s uppermost infrastructure in order to minimize immediate damage and delay the ship from taking on water until the end of the exercise.
Col. Chris Wendland, commander for the U.S. Army’s 17th Field Artillery Brigade, called the exercise a “monumental series of firsts”: the first time the Japanese GSDF fired rockets from Kauai; the first time HIMARS rockets were deployed to Kauai; the first time Gray Eagles have been flown in Hawaii; and the first time the U.S. Army and Japanese GSDF have participated in a SINKEX.
Wendland deemed the exercise a “success in terms of the partnership between the U.S. and the Japanese firing simultaneously,” praising the Japanese military a “phenomenal and formidable force.”
GSDF Lt. Col. Tomohiro Nishimura said, “This is the first time for us to conduct missile shooting training with the U.S. Army in Hawaii and also our Maritime Self-Defense Forces aircraft is working with us to get target information. So this is really a good opportunity to for us to improve interoperability.”
The exercise allowed units to practice, for the first time, how to pass data from a Japanese P-3 Orion airplane to U.S. weapons systems. It also included passing firing data from a Gray Eagle drone to an Apache helicopter, which struck the target with rockets and 30 mm cannons.
U.S. Army Col. Christopher C. Garver said the SINKEX allowed for testing interoperability between people and systems which involves figuring out how to transmit data between platforms that were not designed to communicate with one another, increasing speed and flexibility among allied militaries. In plain language Garver said, “at the end of the day, they want that boat on the bottom of the ocean.”
When asked how SINKEX prepares for real world scenarios, Col. Wendland said that integrating a ground-based anti-ship asset with long range artillery capability, air defense, intelligence, cyber, electronic warfare and space can complicate an adversary’s survival calculus and “use up bandwidth.” The result is to disrupt the adversary’s communications, distort perceptions, and create vulnerabilities that provide an opportunity to take a kill shot.
Asked if capabilities practiced in the SINKEX were offensive (as opposed to defensive), Wendland replied, “Extremely. It’s getting access where access was denied, creating an opportunity for power projection where power projection could be held at risk.”
He noted that lessons learned at RIMPAC are not limited to the Asia-Pacific, but can be applied elsewhere. “You can do that in the Baltic area as well,” Wendland said, adding the message to adversaries is that “we have a very robust, interoperable joint force…”
As Australia, the United States, and Japan train to fight wars together, one noticeably absent regional power, China, was reportedly quietly watching in nearby waters.
China participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and 2016, and was invited back this year, but the invitation was later rescinded over concerns about Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.
RIMPAC 2018, the 26th since being established in 1971, has expanded to include 25 nations from the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, and for the first time, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Israel.
Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering politics, people, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region. He has written for Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy in Focus, Inter Press Service and others.