The U.S. Navy’s top officer is setting a new bar for coalition operations: not just interoperability, but interchangeability. One key to that is understanding exactly what each warship and navy is capable of—and how they themselves assess it.
So as Adm. Mike Gilday flew from ship to ship during last week’s Rim of the Pacific exercise off Hawaii, the chief of naval operations asked commanders “how they seek real-time feedback for the forces that they command, from all the nations.”
“In other words, what I’m interested in is ships being honest with themselves, no matter what country they’re operating from, in terms of what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses are. What they need to sustain and what they need to work on,” Gilday told Defense One after visiting the carrier Abraham Lincoln and Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier on Friday. And, he said, “I use the word interchangeability a lot with allies and partners, because that’s what I want them to aspire to. And what I mean by that…is that an ally or partner, their ships can fill an operational role just as well as a U.S. ship can.”
The exercise has to be more than just the image of 26 nations coming together, Gilday said. “We’re supposed to be learning out here as well. So that’s a major focus of mine, that this is just not a Potemkin-village kind of exercise. It really is meaningful,” he said.
The CNO highlighted some of the firsts for countries in RIMPAC. A South Korea admiral led an amphibious task force. The Australians led exercise logistics. And the integration of unmanned platforms. This, he said, showed that they are “setting the bar higher” for interoperability and that “it’s not just a show.”
Despite several defense leaders highlighting lessons coming out of the war in Ukraine over the last several months, RIMPAC leaders said the exercise did not incorporate any specific tactical lessons from the war, in part because the planners were no longer introducing new ideas by February.
The message that RIMPAC sends is not specially for China, Gilday said, “it’s pointed more broadly than China, globally to anybody that wants to take a look at the power of bringing like-minded nations together.”
USS Abraham Lincoln
Flying from Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base, on a CMV-22B Osprey, Gilday first visited the Lincoln, which is nearly 200 days into a deployment. During the exercise, the carrier has primarily provided aircraft for air-defense, said Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, the ship’s commander.
The carrier’s RIMPAC task force is working on the basics of warfighting, such as maritime security, sea control, anti-submarine warfare, and air defense, and is preparing to “put it all together” in the exercise’s final phase, said Rear Adm. Jeffrey Anderson, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 3.
The Lincoln also has the first squadron of Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II fighters deployed on a carrier. Bauernschmidt and Anderson said the fifth-generation aircraft are a “game-changer,” particularly the planes’ ability to collect data and distribute it to the force.
“We’re still learning about how to A. employ it within a carrier air wing, and also sustain it,” said Anderson. “This is only the second deployment for the F-35C, and so we’re still learning some of those lessons. But as far as an integration of the capability, it’s been truly remarkable.”
As Gilday talked with the ship’s leaders, he asked about the carrier’s time with the 7th Fleet and how China reacted to its presence, particularly when it operated with sister carrier Carl Vinson. Bauernschmidt said a Chinese warship shadowed them for most of their time with 7th Fleet, but it acted in the professional manner typical of PLAN warships in the area.
Anderson said he told Gilday their deployment has served as a reminder that carrier strike groups “remain a primary flexible response option” for leaders to use.
“We saw that throughout our deployment, reacting and responding, deterring China as well as North Korea, and then as well as Russia,” he said.
Gilday also met with sailors to hear their concerns, and conducted an award and reenlistment ceremony in the hangar bay.
Attending the ceremonies was the ship’s nurse Lt. Cmdr. Dana Flieger, who helped medevac two sailors who were badly burned in a July 17 engine room fire on the Peruvian corvette Guise. They were flown to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett, where Flieger and others stabilized them and sent them onward for more care.
“Our [certified registered nurse anesthetist] ended up intubating one of the patients, which saved his life,” she said. “And then we flew them to Tripler [Army Medical Center], which is about a 90-minute flight, where we were constantly reassessing them, giving them medications. So it was definitely one of the hardest, if not the hardest, transport I’ve ever done. These are like highly critical patients, and they were extensively burned.”
That was the first time Flieger had worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Peruvian Navy sent translators to help.
“I was very impressed by the performance of everyone. And even though this was our first time working together, it was very seamless,” she said. “Everybody was willing to help and everybody just wanted the best for the sailors. So I thought it went really well.”
From the Lincoln, Gilday traveled to the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force’s Izumo, a helicopter carrier similar in size to the U.S. Navy’s America amphibious assault ship. He heard about their work in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief portion of RIMPAC, as well as their earlier training.
The leaders also told him about their efforts to modify the ship and its sister, the Kaga, to operate F-35Bs. Last October, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot conducted the first F-35B landing and launch on the Izumo. Part of the conversion includes extending the runway by 35 meters.
Gilday toured its command centers, bridge, and hangar bay, and asked about the ship’s crew. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the Lincoln, the Izumo was quiet, and its 300-plus sailors were mostly absent from view.
Rear Adm. Hirata Toshiyuki, the vice commander of the exercise’s combined task force, said he believes JMSDF will be involved “more deeply and operationally to promote interchangeability” at the next RIMPAC.
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