Foreign ships converging on Hawaii for scaled-back RIMPAC

Call it the stealth RIMPAC.

From the shores of Oahu, there won’t be much to see of a very much scaled-back Rim of the Pacific, Aug. 17-31, which is usually billed as the world’s largest international maritime exercise.

Just nine countries besides the United States are participating due to the new coronavirus, officials said.

Two years ago, the last time the biennial exercise was held, 25 nations, 46 surface ships, five submarines, 17 land forces, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel were part of the big interoperability drills. All the participants were reinvited for 2020.

RIMPAC was over a month long in 2018. Amid the pandemic it’s been trimmed to two weeks and pushed back from July to mid-August. Almost all of the activity this time will be at sea.

Visiting ships might pull into Pearl Harbor only for brief logistics stops, and sailors won’t be leaving the ship or pier.

Gone this time, due to COVID-19, is the harbor phase with final planning, parties and sporting events such as soccer between countries as well as free time — and spending — in Waikiki, according to the Royal Canadian Navy.

Navy Region Hawaii in years past said RIMPAC provided a more than $50 million boost to Hawaii’s economy.

A “free play” scenario usually held at the end of the sea phase also has been canceled. A U.S. aircraft carrier won’t be participating this time. There will be no amphibious storm-the-beach operations. The air component was canceled.

“The at-sea-only construct for RIMPAC 2020 was developed to ensure the safety of all military forces participating by minimizing shore-based contingents. This modified plan will allow us to conduct a meaningful exercise with maximum training value and minimum risk to the force, allies and partners, and the people of Hawaii,” said Cmdr. John Fage, a spokesman for the Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego, which plans the exercise.

The Navy hasn’t released the list of attending countries, but media reports and official announcements point to Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand and Brunei among those participating.

Recently, five Australian warships joined the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group and a Japanese destroyer in conducting a trilateral exercise in the Philippine Sea, with some of those Australian ships expected to head to Hawaii.

Japan is sending the helicopter destroyer Ise and destroyer Ashigara, the Japan Times reported.

The Royal New Zealand Navy tweeted that “HMNZS Manawanui will be exercising key capabilities used in maritime surveillance and disaster responses while enhancing its interoperability with other nations” during RIMPAC. The 141-foot Manawanui is a diving support vessel.

The Philippine Navy said the missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal and about 100 crew coming to Hawaii tested negative for the new coronavirus as of July 23 — with the exception of two crew members who previously tested positive and were quarantined and receiving treatment.

Participating ships are now converging on Hawaii.

U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in announcing the abbreviated RIMPAC at the end of April, said the exercise, which takes place in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, “is a unique training platform designed to enhance interoperability and strategic maritime partnerships.”

“In these challenging times, 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,” Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino said at the time.

China, which was disinvited from the prestigious exercise in 2018, made an appearance anyway — dispatching a spy ship to international waters off Hawaii. Russia, also not invited, has sent spy ships in the past.

The San Diego-based 844-foot amphibious assault ship USS Essex, a flattop capable of supporting helicopters, Ospreys and F-35B fighter short-takeoff aircraft, will participate in this year’s RIMPAC, and in a dual-purpose role, it will transport vintage aircraft to Oahu for an Aug. 29-Sept. 2 end-of-World War II observance.

Five AT-6/SNJ advanced trainers, two PBY Catalina flying boats, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, an FM-2 Wildcat, an F8F Bearcat, a P-51 Mustang, a Stearman biplane, a TBM Avenger and a T-28 Trojan are among aircraft expected to participate in several aerial flyovers.

Rumor has it that President Donald Trump and top defense officials might come out for the Sept. 2 observance by the Battleship Missouri Memorial, site of Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945.

RIMPAC will have multi- national anti-submarine warfare, ship integration, maritime intercept practice and live-fire training events including a “sinkex,” or sink exercise in which a decommissioned Navy ship will be sunk far out at sea.

The Canadian Navy said it is sending two frigates, Regina and Winnipeg, with about 500 sailors and aviators who were to be quarantined prior to the exercise and tested for the corona- virus.

The U.S. Navy “had anticipated this year’s event to be even grander than the past one in 2018. They planned more complex scenarios and more participating nations” before the virus struck, the Canadian Navy said in a release.

Canada said Regina and Winnipeg will fire missiles in the sinkex, with Winnipeg to fire Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles and torpedoes, while Regina will fire a Harpoon missile.

Two years ago U.S. and Japanese truck-mounted missiles hit the decommissioned ex-USS Racine from the shore, an Australian P-8A aircraft targeted the tank-landing ship with a Harpoon missile from the air and the Pearl Harbor submarine USS Olympia sank the 522-foot ship with a heavyweight MK-48 torpedo.

The ship sank in waters 15,000 feet deep 63 miles north of Kauai.

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