Naval War Games Partnership in Hawaii Features 29 Countries

U.S. Navy sailors assist in mooring Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Sydney
U.S. Navy sailors assist in mooring Royal Australian Navy Hobart-class guided-missile destroyer HMAS Sydney for Exercise Rim of the Pacific 2024 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, June 27, 2024. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Gavin Arnoldhendershot)

The biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest recurring naval warfare exercise, kicked off in Hawaii this week as warships, aircraft and personnel from 29 countries gathered in the islands.

The combined forces will conduct a mixture of naval combat exercises and humanitarian response operations in a region where both tensions and global temperatures have been on the rise. Leaders of the RIMPAC task force held a news conference Thursday morning at Pearl Harbor addressing both local reporters and international media that have flown to the islands to cover the exercise, which runs through early August.

For local media a familiar face addressed the crowd. Vice Adm. John Wade is the Navy officer best known to Hawaii residents as leader of the task force that removed the majority of fuel from the Navy’s underground Red Hill facility. In 2021, jet fuel from Red Hill tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people and sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu relies on for drinking water.

Wade finally finished that mission this year, and now a new Navy task force is in charge of closing Red Hill. Since then Wade was given command of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet based in San Diego, and is now leading the RIMPAC task force. He said that his experiences with Red Hill have been on his mind as he prepares for the exercise.

“I have explained to everyone from the most senior to the most junior (personnel ) that there is a connection with all things here in Hawaii—with people, land, water, wildlife, flowers—and that there is a sacred responsibility to be good stewards in the environment, ” Wade told reporters. “(While ) executing that mission I did a lot of self-study, learning about Hawaii and (its ) cultural traditions. … It’s very important that we have an understanding of all that as a context.”

The fuel reserve in Red Hill previously played a role during RIMPAC. In 2018 the Red Hill facility provided over 19 million gallons of fuel to participating U.S. and foreign ships and aircraft, according to a Navy news release at the time. But in 2022 the U.S. military began shifting toward a “distributed ” refueling plan that puts a major emphasis on tanker ships and at-sea fueling operations. Several of the ships participating in the exercise are fueling ships.

“We cannot conduct our exercises without the fuel to allow us to maneuver and to get from one place to another, ” said Wade, noting that ensuring fueling is done safely is important, both for people and the environment.

“You want to be safe, don’t want anyone hurt or any damage to equipment, clearly, with hazardous materials, especially in the backdrop of why and what has happened here with the environment, ” Wade said. “We want to make sure that we do it right.”

The return of RIMPAC has brought protests and condemnation from several environmental activist groups in Hawaii.

“I respect the views of all that are concerned about the environment, and I’m applying aloha spirit, to respect all, even the critics, ” Wade said. “And it’s a fair criticism, and that is why I’ve made environmental stewardship one of my priorities here, so that we conduct safe training but do it in a respectful manner.”

The participating forces are no strangers to potential dangers. During the 2022 iteration of RIMPAC, a fire aboard the Chilean navy vessel BAP Guise severely injured two sailors, forcing participating forces to work together to evacuate them and bring them on-island, where they received care at Army Tripler Medical Center.

“What we will do in the air, on the sea, below the sea and on the ground is inherently dangerous, ” Wade said. “So we will always have a plan and factor safety into everything that we do. And we will also apply effective risk management. This does not only apply to our operations ; I’ve enforced through senior leadership that this also applies when our team is out (in town ) and conducting recreational activities. The bottom line is I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The Guise underwent repairs after the fire, and this year has returned to Hawaii, and Chilean navy Commodore Alberto Guerrero is serving as vice commander of the RIMPAC task force.

“I’m truly honored, humbled to have been appointed as the deputy commander for this RIMPAC 2024, ” Guerrero said. “I have the luxury as well to have participated three times before this version. So I’m pretty aware of lovely Hawaii, lovely area, and truly honored to be here again.”

The exercise has brought in countries from all sides of the Pacific and as far away as Europe. This year the German navy has two ships participating for the first time. Guerrero, whose country sits on South America’s Pacific coastline, said countries from all across the world have a stake in what happens in the Pacific.

“We live in a interconnected world, and what is happening in one area of the world also impacts another. And it’s clear, at least to me and my senior leadership, is that global security and our future prosperity is absolutely linked to the Indo-­Pacific region.”

But while countries from across the region have been invited, notably absent is China. The Chinese navy attended RIMPAC in both 2014 and 2016 as an invited guest, but in 2018 was not invited in 2018 as tensions flared with neighboring countries over maritime territorial and navigation rights.

Beijing claims the entire South China Sea, a busy waterway that more than a third of all international trade travels through, as its exclusive sovereign territory. The Chinese military has built bases on disputed islands, reefs and atolls to assert its claims and has attacked ships from countries.

Tensions have been boiling over between China and the Philippines. This month Chinese Coast Guardsmen rammed and boarded Philippine navy boats that were resupplying an outpost in disputed territory. One Philippine navy sailor lost a finger during the altercation. As tensions have escalated, the Philippines scaled back its planned RIMPAC contribution to keep more forces ready to respond in disputed waters.

“China was not invited this year just because of the reluctance to adhere to international rules, norms and standards, ” Wade said.

Chinese military forces lately have been ramping up operations around Taiwan, a self-ruled island democracy that Beijing regards as a rogue province. Taiwanese voters recently elected Lai Ching-te as their newest president. In his inauguration speech in May, Lai said, “I hope that China will face the reality of (Taiwan’s ) existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan and, in good faith, choose dialogue over confrontation.”

Officially, the United States has not diplomatically recognized Taiwan since normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. But the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 maintained de facto ties and requires the U.S. to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Several activist groups that have joined together to form the International Cancel RIMPAC Coalition charge that the U.S. and other participants in the exercise are stoking tensions and that China is defending itself against their aggression. They will hold events in Hawaii and San Diego throughout RIMPAC condemning the exercise.

In a media release Wednesday, the coalition said its members “are deeply concerned about strengthening military alliances between the U.S. and the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, Republic of Korea and more countries in the Indo ­-Pacific, as well as its allies in NATO, to shore up the U.S.’ aggressive attempts to contain and isolate China.”

Taiwanese journalists made up a significant portion of the gathered media at the RIMPAC news conference. Many had questions about whether the American military would intervene to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Wade delicately navigated the thorny politics, mostly recommending they contact other U.S. government offices.

“We are not focused on any particular nation, whether it be China or Taiwan, ” Wade said. “(We all have ) shared interest here in being ready and capable to respond to natural disasters and to prevent aggression, and then if there is aggression, then to counter that based on national policies and whatever they would want to do.”


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