At Reborn RIMPAC, a clear mission: deter China, defend Taiwan

ABOARD THE USS ESSEX IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN — Sailing off Oahu, South Korean Navy Rear Admiral Sangmin Ahn commands Combined Task Force 176, the first Korean naval officer to lead an expeditionary strike group during the massive Rim of the Pacific exercise known under the name RIMPAC.

“It’s my greatest honor. I participated in [my] first RIMPAC when I was an ensign in 1992, and I’m back here 30 years later as an admiral,” Ahn told reporters Sunday through a translator.

RIMPAC involves 26 nations, 38 surface ships, four submarines, nine national ground forces, about 170 aircraft, more than 30 unmanned systems and 25,000 personnel, according to the US Navy’s 3rd Fleet, which oversees the exercise.

While not all of this military power is officially aimed at any specific country or situation, it’s clear that the military leaders here are focused on deterrence and defense against the only adversary in the region whose actions might require such precision and precision. such force: China. Everything this exercise does is aimed at China, whether military leaders are free to say so or not, and for good reason.

China now has the world’s largest navy thanks to its recent military modernization push, including two aircraft carriers and a third launched in June. Beijing plans for the People’s Liberation Army to become a “world-class” military by 2049, according to the US Department of Defense’s 2021 report on the Chinese military. Under lifelong ruler Xi Jinping, China’s leaders have used their enhanced military forces to threaten and intimidate Taiwan, defend their claims to disputed islands and create new ones in the South China Sea, including building a military installation. on Woody Island. In May, China flew 30 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, forcing Taipei to deploy its aircraft and air defense missile systems.

As a result, military tensions with China’s peaceful neighbors are rising. In turn, the United States and its regional allies have used their own armies to assert international borders and norms. The US Navy has pushed back against China’s regional claims by sailing ships through disputed and international waters in what the military calls Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs. The Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold on Tuesday conducted its third FONOP in or near the South China Sea since July 13, according to the U.S. 7th Fleet. The vessel recently traveled near the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, and across the Taiwan Strait.

Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Samuel Paparo said two weeks ago that China’s development of combat power, including the ability to project beyond its waters, is “very worrying”.

“RIMPAC itself is not geared against any particular state actor,” he told a news conference. “But it demonstrates the solidarity of all its participants with the rules-based international order and the principles of sovereignty, freedom of the seas, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and against what would otherwise be expansionist activities about states revising this rules-based international order… which represents centuries of international law.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said RIMPAC should be viewed “entirely through the lens of China at this point, simply because it’s the player that matters.” In the Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy, China is the Defense Department‘s “most important strategic competitor and stimulus challenge”.

“In many ways, China is what drove the United States to reinvigorate RIMPAC and really focus on more complicated operations,” Clark said. “I think it paid off in terms of interoperability with the most capable allies.”

Taiwan’s security and independence have become the main security story in Asia in recent years, following China’s crackdown on Hong Kong independence and Xi’s promise to force reunification with the mainland. . Last year, the former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, told the Senate that China could try to take Taiwan within the next six years.

Clark said high-end exercises at RIMPAC like air and missile defense and anti-ship attack are “the kind of missions you would have to do for the defense of Taiwan.”

Scenarios China could impose on Taiwan include an invasion, blockade, island occupation or quarantine, he said. RIMPAC operations such as search and seizure and amphibious assaults could be used in these scenarios.

“So I think I would say that the RIMPAC events, even though they’re not explicitly about Taiwan, they’re designed to address the range of scenarios that China could present to Taiwan, it’s not just the invasion,” Clark said. “But because if you think about the naval forces, they can help with these other scenarios that become more likely, actually, based on the events that we’ve seen in Ukraine. I think China is wondering if an invasion is the right way to go to bring Taiwan back into the fold.

Taiwan was not invited to this year’s exercise, but some US lawmakers want that to change. Last week, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 with an amendment that Taiwan should be invited to participate in 2024, the second consecutive year that Congress has requested that they participate. The bill also included an amendment calling for a government-wide tabletop exercise to create a response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan scenario.

RIMPAC training also provides messages to U.S. foreign partners and adversaries at various levels, according to Clark, with operations at the lower end with smaller navies that “are really designed to… win the battle of ‘influence, if you will’.

“They are meant to improve the connection between the United States and those small countries that are in many ways the target audience for the United States and China,” he said. “Both countries are trying to have more influence and are trying to bring these countries into their camps. And they have been, to varying degrees, successful.

RIMPAC’s high-end operations are more about practicing and demonstrating to China that countries like Australia, Japan, Korea and European allies are united and capable of conducting them with the United States, he said. -he declares.

If China attacks these nations, it “is not going to attack a group of disparate naval forces that cannot work with each other. You’re going to attack a set of allies who have been doing some of these operations that are pretty high end,” he said.

On Sunday, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the participation of more than two dozen nations is something “our adversaries cannot replicate on their own.” Neither Russia, nor China, nor anyone else there,” speaking to reporters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. “And I think that demonstrates… that we will always be united, together.”

The establishment of an international task force aboard the USS Essex with personnel from countries such as Chile, Colombia and Singapore helps the military overcome obstacles such as language barriers and unfamiliar equipment.

“So really and truly the real secret weapon, the real secret sauce of this exercise is the personal relationships and the ability to solve problems as they arise,” said Captain Benjamin Allbritton, commodore of Amphibious Squadron Five.

Essex is both a flagship of CTF 176 to command and control its forces, and a platform used to move troops by air or sea. CTF 176 consists of 13 ships from eight nations and 1,000 Marines from nine nations, totaling 6,600 personnel, Ahn said.

Rear Admiral Michael Baze, the commander of the Third Expeditionary Group, said the easy part is the thinking, the planning and the command-and-control relationship he has with Ahn. The “tech stuff” is what RIMPAC is for.

“Understanding how to work effectively together, communication equipment, things like that. That’s why we’re doing this training, so we can overcome these issues,” he said.

As RIMPAC continues this month, the complexity will increase until the exercise culminates in an amphibious assault involving all participating nations.

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