Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better attribute information about China’s modernization plans and how they might affect Taiwan.
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii — The sprawling Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise is not designed to counter or threaten China, according to the head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet — but it does focus on the skills and technologies that would be “most salient for potential conflict in the years ahead.”
China has said it wants to accelerate its military modernization to be completed by 2027, and U.S. and Taiwanese military officials have said this modernization would give China the ability to invade Taiwan. The U.S. military’s support for Ukraine after a Russian invasion this year has raised more questions about the lengths to which the U.S. might go to help Taiwan if China invaded this decade.
In 2018, China was disinvited from RIMPAC, but even then Navy officials insisted the biennial multinational exercise is not aimed specifically at countering China or any other country.
Asked whether the Taiwan 2027 threat shaped the exercise or any of the specific problem sets within it, Adm. Sam Paparo told Defense News RIMPAC was designed to bolster the international coalition’s proficiency in areas that would be applicable in the Taiwan 2027 scenario, including amphibious operations and long-range strikes.
“Increasingly ... we’re integrating unmanned capabilities with live-fire capabilities in the [sinking exercise during RIMPAC] — and we’re operating in a more distributed and a more netted manner, so that shooters are not necessarily tied to sensors and that weapons are receiving sensor data from multiple sources across multiple spectra, leading to a more distributed, more survivable, more lethal force that’s harder to target,” he said July 9 after a RIMPAC press conference.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are moving in that direction, with the Navy using its Distributed Maritime Operations concept to guide its investments. The Marine Corps has pursued a family of related concepts, including Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, which outlines how small units will disperse across the vast Pacific and spread their sensing and lethal effects.
Paparo said many of the Pacific allies and partners are also gravitating towards distributed lethality types of concepts, as they see the same changes in technology and in the threat.
“I do see a convergence, based on the changing character of warfare, in the sense that with the commoditization of precision strike technology and with the commoditization of sensors from the seabed to space, our allies and partners see that geography is no longer necessarily sanctuary and [they] must be smarter about maneuvering in such a way that places the fleets and the fleets’ capability in a position to be more mobile and [survivable],” Paparo said.
Several Asian news outlets asked Paparo during the news conference about the message RIMPAC is meant to send to China and North Korea.
On China specifically, Paparo acknowledged “it is quite concerning, the combat power that China is developing over the last few decades, and that includes power-projection capability for power projection beyond its borders and beyond its shores.”
“RIMPAC itself is not oriented against any particular nation state actor ... but it does demonstrate the solidarity of all its participants to the international rules-based order and the principles of sovereignty, of freedom of the seas, of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and against what otherwise would be expansionist activities,” he added.
Paparo said RIMPAC addresses other threats on the rise, including that of more frequent and more severe natural disasters.
“Whether it is the threat posed by disasters, whether it is the threats posed by state actors, and whether it is amphibious operations or long-range precision strikes — it’s not a matter of focusing our operations in one area, one mission set,” he told Defense News. “It’s increasing our game across all of the mission sets.”
RIMPAC 2022 kicked off on June 29 and runs through early August. This year’s event is the first full-sized RIMPAC in four years, after 2020′s event was scaled down significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s iteration includes 26 nations, 38 ships, four submarines, more than 170 aircraft, nine land forces, about 30 unmanned systems in multiple domains, and more than 25,000 people.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.