JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, Hawaii — Planners of this year’s Rim of the Pacific naval exercise inserted first-of-kind events to challenge navies large and small, seeking to create a multinational force that is more lethal and can better sustain itself in operations.
U.S. 3rd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Michael Boyle, who is leading the ongoing exercise, said a major part of RIMPAC’s success is its broad message. “Just by flying their flag, [participants] bring a strategic message that they’re like-minded partners here and they’re after a free and open Pacific,” he told Defense News in an interview.
But planners want to ensure the exercise is also tactically relevant, and that’s where some of the innovative operations come into play.
Several of the new operations introduced this year related to logistics, according to Boyle.
Australia and New Zealand brought refueling and replenishment ships to the exercise, in what he called an important first for both nations.
“The easy part is to go build a warfighter; the harder part is to figure out how to sustain it,” the admiral said. “If you look at what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine, they’ve got roads and railroads to sustain that force across the border, and it’s still really really, really challenging.”
“To sustain a force at sea in a contested environment means we can’t be the only capability for logistics, and we tend to be. We’ve got T-AKEs, we’ve got replenishment ships, we’ve got C-17s, we’ve got C-130s, we’ve got the enablers. But the importance of all of these countries being able to bring their own enablers is very helpful,” he continued.
He also highlighted a goal for Mexican naval forces participating in the exercise. Though RIMPAC doesn’t typically involve ships or aircraft conducting maneuvers they aren’t certified to do, he said Mexico wanted to learn how to do a refueling at sea with the support of RIMPAC partner nations.
“We just take it for granted that a ship pulls up next to an oiler and there’s a refueling at sea,” Boyle said. “We’ve been doing it forever, and it’s just like chewing gum for us. But they don’t have that capability.”
Boyle said he spoke to the captain of Mexican Navy frigate Benito Juarez, and “he was adamant that if they’re going to be a navy that can operate at the high end — because they’ve got great capability, they bought a nice ship … that they have to be able to do that.”
Boyle said he wasn’t sure whether Juarez will conduct a full refueling at sea by the end of the exercise, which runs through early August. But he said a plan is in place to work on the building blocks of that at-sea maneuver, which asks two ships to come uncomfortably close together and then sail at the same speed and direction in close proximity until the refueling is complete.
The admiral said he wants the Juarez crew to at least get to do some approaches with an oiler, if not an actual refueling at sea, because “I want them to go home proud that they accomplished something and take that, leverage that to their navy to say, we can do this, we need to be able to do it.”
Boyle said the exercise also included several conversations and demonstrations related to increasing the lethality of the combined naval force.
He pointed to littoral combat ship Tulsa as the beneficiary of past RIMPAC experimentation and a ship that can now share those benefits with other RIMPAC players.
The LCS ships were originally built without an anti-ship missile launcher. The Naval Strike Missile was demonstrated at RIMPAC 2014, and an LCS shot a different anti-ship missile — the Harpoon — from a containerized launcher at RIMPAC 2016. In the end, the Navy settled on a containerized version of the Naval Strike Missile for all LCSs to boost their lethality.
“As I talked to other countries, they say, we really need an organic surface-to-surface missile system, we just don’t have one. And I said, guess what, we didn’t have one on LCS either. But now we do,” Boyle said.
He mentioned the Peruvian Navy as one example of a country looking to up-arm its ships, and he suggested their RIMPAC participants visit Tulsa and chat with the crew about how easy it was to bolt the missile launcher onto the ship.
“There’s no reason we can’t export that capability,” he said.
Referencing the surface navy’s 2015 push for “distributed lethality” in the force, Boyle said “it makes sense, because if you have to target everything, then how do you choose? And by targeting everything, you just make our high-end platforms like the aircraft carrier more survivable,” he said, noting Tulsa’s presence at RIMPAC could be inspiration for other navies to look to similar solutions to bolster their ships’ lethality on a tighter budget.
To that point, Boyle said there are a lot of ways to sink an enemy ship, some more sophisticated than others — but the sinking exercises at RIMPAC 2022 were meant to promote them all.
“What’s new is a lot of unique ways that we’re targeting those ships, and that we’re doing both high-end and low-end kill chains simultaneously,” he said of this year’s iteration.
Malaysian Navy corvette Lekir fired an Exocet missile at decommissioned U.S. Navy frigate Rodney M. Davis, in the same SINKEX as U.S. Navy P-8s fired Harpoon missiles at the target — a new and more high-end mission for the maritime patrol aircraft that was built to drop sonobuoys, not anti-ship missiles.
“Integrating high-end and low-end kill chains, I think, is something that is new,” Boyle said.
Getting to that high-end kill chain relies on good networks and integrating unmanned systems.
Boyle highlighted the Chilean Navy’s move to Link 22, a NATO-developed secure radio system, as an example of the benefit of RIMPAC. Boyle said getting the network set-up right isn’t just about the initial software installation, but getting the permissions and configurations right on an ongoing basis.
“They were parked across from France and Canada on the pier. France and Canada are founding members of Link 22, and so the [subject matter experts] from France and Canada were across the pier from Chile, walking them through Link 22 and how it works,” he said.
“It’s not just about tactics, it’s about helping to solve those types of problems as you go,” he said.
Once the proper networks are in place, unmanned systems — with their remote sensing and targeting capabilities — can be integrated. Boyle said this year’s RIMPAC was among the first demonstrations ever of a manned-unmanned hybrid fleet conducting operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to live-fire drills.
“It’s how we complete kill chains pushing the data. It’s how we maintain survivability by not using onboard sensors. Those are experiments that we are running within the U.S. force [at RIMPAC] as we work through this to ultimately make us more lethal and to make us more survivable,” he said. “If you never have to turn on a radar, but you can complete the kill chain, you’ve got a lot better chance of surviving in a high-end fight with a near-peer competitor.”
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.