The Navy is still hoping to hold the big Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise scheduled mainly through July off Hawaii — but suggested it is looking at modifying the international interoperability drills to do so.
Given that RIMPAC is more than two months away, the military hope is that coronavirus will have abated enough to keep some form of the exercise.
“We are evaluating the situation and potential impacts from COVID-19. U.S. Third Fleet, U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. (Indo-Pacific Command) are ready to flex RIMPAC with our allies and partners, and are examining additional options to ensure the safety of our forces and the safety of the people of Hawaii,” Lt. Ada Willis, a spokeswoman with the Third Fleet in San Diego, said in an email. Third Fleet plans RIMPAC.
Held every two years, RIMPAC in 2018 drew 25 nations, 46 surface ships, five submarines, 17 land forces and more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel to Hawaii and Southern California.
Some Hawaii residents have questioned the safety of bringing in tens of thousands of visitors for the world’s largest international maritime exercise when tourism has purposely been halted to prevent the spread of the virus.
Gov. David Ige tweeted on April 7 that he had spoken with Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith “and we’re exploring RIMPAC options with our allies & partners to ensure the health & safety of the people of Hawaii and our military forces.”
Ige initially had greater concern when he thought the exercise was scheduled earlier than it is, officials said.
RIMPAC typically boosts Hawaii’s economy by more than $50 million. The exercise includes a shore phase in which ships are crowded together sometimes two and three abreast in Pearl Harbor and sailors have to cross from one ship to another to get on and off.
That phase is typically marked by interaction that includes sporting events among participating countries for several days, ship social event get-togethers and final planning meetings by commanders before ships head out to sea.
Whether RIMPAC would be held or not came up at a telephone town hall Wednesday hosted by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to discuss the national and state response to COVID-19.
A caller said the “rhetoric” from the military is that the exercise is still on and asked for an update.
Capt. Jeff Bernard, commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said RIMPAC goes beyond warfighting abilities.
“This is about flexible maritime forces to improve capabilities like disaster relief (and) maritime security. So that’s why RIMPAC is important,” he said. “And as far as whether it’s going to happen or not, I can assure you that this is being evaluated at the highest levels of the United States Navy.”
The prestigious international exercise was expected to exclude China and Russia and showcase U.S. missile offensive and robotic capabilities.
The future of this year’s RIMPAC comes at a time when some other big Pacific exercises are falling to the effects of COVID-19.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command canceled Exercise Balikatan 2020, scheduled for May 4-15 in the Philippines, which last year saw the involvement of about 3,500 American service members.
Hundreds of Schofield Barracks soldiers were expected to participate this year. Military planners are looking for other engagement options.
Australia said recently that after “careful deliberation” the government decided not to proceed with the 2020 Marine Rotational Force — Darwin deployment, given ongoing restrictions associated with COVID-19.
The annual spring, six-month rotation of 2,500 Marines to Australia was to include Hawaii-based forces including MV-22 Ospreys, AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters, RQ-21 Blackjack drones and some Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Schofield Barracks this week brought home 1,350 soldiers early from training in Thailand due to coronavirus concerns.
COVID-19 also resulted in the postponement of a first-of-its-kind test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile killer that was to be conducted with a defense-of-Hawaii mission in mind.
The new SM-3 Block IIA missile, with longer reach and greater speed, could not only provide greater protection for Hawaii, but also Guam, other U.S. interests and Japan.
The planned May test was expected to see a Navy destroyer, likely the USS John Paul Jones out of Pearl Harbor, fire an SM-3 Block IIA missile at an ICBM target missile out over the Pacific.