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World’s largest naval drill kicks off amid COVID-19 downsizing and added precautions

U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) transits the Pacific Ocean with the Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Arunta (FFH 151) and U.S. Navy fleet replenishment oiler USNS Henry J. Kaiser (T-AO 187) during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John McGovern)

The world’s largest international maritime exercise — otherwise known as RIMPAC — was originally planned to have 30 countries, more than 50 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.

Four thousand of those personnel were going to operate ashore. Most of it would have occurred in Hawaii, but also in Southern California.

Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of the 3rd Fleet in San Diego and the commander for the 2020 Rim of the Pacific, provided the would-have-been stats Monday in a COVID-19-impacted Facebook video kickoff for the exercise.

A pared-down version of the interoperability drills and innovation and experimentation tests runs through Aug. 31 — less than half the usual time. And minus the innovation and experimentation.

“I want to say upfront that everything we are doing for RIMPAC has been carefully and deliberately planned to ensure everyone’s safety,” Conn said.

Ten nations, 22 ships, one submarine and approximately 5,300 personnel are participating in the at-sea-only version of the exercise.

In 2018, the last time the biennial RIMPAC was held, the ashore exercise control group was roughly 600 people, Conn said. This time, it’s fewer than 100 — and all completed a 14-day quarantine at a military installation and all had a negative COVID-19 test.

The same was required for all U.S. ship crews that traveled to Hawaii, he said.

If needed, U.S. ships will be able to conduct COVID-19 tests at sea, and some partner-nation ships will have testing capability.

“If an emergency medical situation arises and exceeds a ship’s ability to resolve (it), on-island military medical facilities have sufficient capability to medically support RIMPAC 2020,” Conn said. “We do not plan to use any local health care resources.”

Ships have only been in Pearl Harbor to take on food, fuel and other supplies, and sailors haven’t left the pier adjacent to the ship, he said. No liberty is planned.

Conn noted the “formidable team” of 10 navies participating, including: Australia, Brunei, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and United States.

“This year we will focus solely on warfighting in the maritime domain — to include anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and maritime interdiction operations as well as some robust live-fire events,” Conn said.

The Navy plans a “sinkex” (sink exercise) “later on in the exercise” with the former USS Durham, a 575-foot amphibious cargo ship that saw service in the Vietnam War and participated in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

Canada said its frigates 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.

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, is participating in this year’s RIMPAC without any fighters.

In a dual-purpose role, the Essex transported 14 vintage aircraft to Oahu for an Aug. 29-Sept. 2 75th anniversary end-of-World War II observance. The U.S. contingent also includes a cruiser, two destroyers and a submarine.

Conn said the time to establish interoperability is not in the midst of a crisis response.

“That is why we made the calculated decision to proceed with RIMPAC 2020,” he said, “to demonstrate to ourselves and the world that our navies and our nations have to resolve to come together in terms of crisis.”


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