WASHINGTON — For many years, it’s been fashionable for some US radio stations in the US to refer to the year’s 10th month as "Rocktober." This time around, there is little question that — in the maritime world, at least — naval forces the world over have been rocking out.
From the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from the Mediterranean to the eastern and northern Atlantic, all the way to Latin America, naval forces have undertaken an unusual explosion of major exercises — many of them much larger than normal. Dozens of countries, many thousands of military personnel and three US aircraft carriers have been taking part.
This burst of military activity taking place at the same time is not the result of a coordinated effort. The exercises take many months to plan, and the timing of each one is set by a number of factors. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate so many events on such a scale.
Nevertheless, it's clear there are more military forces on the move than usual.
"It seems a heightened state of activity above steady-state is taking place," observed Bryan McGrath, a US naval analyst and longtime carrier champion, when asked what was going on. "This stuff goes on under the radar, quietly, most of the time. But this is probably a heightened level than normal."
Exercises taking place over the past few weeks alone include:
- The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s fleet review, a major event held every three years. The event culminated on Oct. 20 with a grand parade of nearly 40 warships from five countries, including the Izumo, a "destroyer" that is really a helicopter carrier, the largest warship Japan has built since World War II. Taking part in a "pass-in-review" were the ships of the US Navy’s Forward Deployed Naval Force in Japan, led by the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. Symbolic of Japan’s growing willingness to join in active military operations, Shinzō Abe came aboard the Ronald Reagan on Oct. 18, the first time a serving Japanese prime minister visited a US aircraft carrier at sea. The review was even more symbolic as it came about a month after Japan enacted new security laws that allow the country to provide armed aid to allies under attack.
- The Ronald Reagan and other US warships also took part in the Republic of Korea’s Fleet Review on Oct. 23, a smaller — but no less symbolic — affair to mark the South Korean Navy’s 70th anniversary.
- Off the eastern coast of India, Exercise Malabar took place from Oct. 13 to 19. Hosted by India, the exercise with some of the Indian Navy’s most modern units featured the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts, along with the littoral combat ship Fort Worth and aircraft carrier City of Corpus Christi. And, for the first time since 2007, a Japanese warship, the destroyer Fuyuzuki, also took part.
- Another US aircraft carrier, the George Washington, is cruising around Latin America on her way to the US East Coast after several years of service in Japan. The cruise, dubbed Southern Seas, is coinciding with annual UNITAS exercises, the US Navy’s longest-running international exercises, held every year in several phases around Latin America. UNITAS rarely features a carrier, but the GW’s participation has given the exercises a much higher profile than usual.
- This year’s Joint Warrior exercises, held twice a year off Scotland, were larger than usual. The spring exercise in April saw more than 50 ships taking part in what NATO said was the largest-ever Joint Warrior, while the fall exercises in September and October featured more than 30 ships.
- Just after Joint Warrior’s conclusion, frigates and destroyers from six nations took part in the first-ever live test of a sea-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe. The US destroyer Ross successfully engaged a BMD target on the Hebrides Range off western Scotland, while another US destroyer and ships from Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain also took part. The Dutch and Spanish frigates were also able to track the BMD target.
- The biggest exercise of all is Exercise Trident Juncture 2015, a huge NATO combined effort involving 36,000 personnel engaging in air, land and sea exercises across Europe, Mediterranean and Atlantic waters and even Canada. Featuring what NATO says is the largest air exercises in over a decade, Trident Juncture saw US Navy and Marine Corps forces take part in an amphibious assault in Portugal and numerous NATO warships operating throughout the European theater.
All this is happening with a background of singular and ongoing naval activities. European Union navies have been active since the late spring, engaged in migrant-patrol missions in the mid- and eastern Mediterranean, even as a steady stream of Russian warships and support ships have moved many tons of equipment from the Black Sea into Syria. The surprising cruise-missile attack on Oct. 7 launched from small Russian warships in the Caspian Sea against targets nearly 1,000 miles away in Syria is changing the way military planners are looking at what were thought of as small, inexpensive and relatively inconsequential naval ships.
Navies have always carried out show-the-flag missions, visits into international waters to demonstrate their country's interest and ability to deploy abroad. This year, however, two burgeoning navies are expanding on what they've done before. India, which is engaged in a major fleet modernization and expansion program, fielded several warships at once to visit countries in Africa and Europe, venturing for the first time into the Black Sea.
The Chinese Navy is also ranging further afield than ever before. The three ships of its 20th Escort Force, an effort to provide a task group on anti-piracy and maritime-security patrol in the Gulf of Aden, concluded a four-month mission not by heading back to China, but by continuing on to Sudan, Egypt and northern Europe on an ambitious, round-the-world cruise — the first ever by a Chinese naval squadron.
After spending several weeks showing the Chinese flag in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Gdynia, Poland, the task force visited Portugal before continuing across the Atlantic, where it will call at Mayport, Florida, before visiting Mexico and heading back to the Pacific. The cruise, featuring a modern destroyer and frigate, as well as a large replenishment ship, is a significant demonstration of China’s increasing ability to operate naval forces far from home.
So what's the meaning of all this?
"It demonstrates how wide a spectrum naval forces are applied to in peacetime," said McGrath. "When there’s no fighting going on, there’s still a lot for navies to do — something that gets lost in the discussions."
The new level of naval activity may not be just a bubble.
"We probably are seeing a new normal, unlikely to drop off," McGrath said. "It's because great powers are beginning to contend with each other again. Great power competition is back on the menu."