Scaled Back RIMPAC Launches Amid Pandemic Concerns

Aug 17, 2020

The world’s largest maritime military exercise kicks off Monday in the waters around Hawaii, but opponents say it’s a risk vector for spreading COVID-19.

The Rim of the Pacific international military exercise, or RIMPAC as its known, is held every two years on land, in the air, and on the seas around the Hawaiian Islands. In the past, RIMPAC has included more than two-dozen participating countries.

This year will mark the 27th iteration of RIMPAC. Such military exercises are increasingly a pillar of the U.S. national security strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which aims to contain an increasingly aggressive and expansive China.

The training will also be conducted exclusively at sea, with a minimal presence of personnel on land, where the virus could be spread to or from the local community. That is a significant change from past version of RIMPAC, which incorporated numerous social gatherings, shore leave for sailors, and large, land-based training events.

But the 2020 exercise will be considerably smaller in scale and scope, due primarily to the global COVID-19 pandemic. RIMPAC 2020 will feature just 10 participating countries, many of them long-standing U.S. allies in the region, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

That represents a substantial reduction from the 26 nations that participated in the 2018 RIMPAC. While the U.S. Navy declined to provide specific reasons that former partners declined to participate this year, the ongoing pandemic is the likely culprit.

The global health crisis has already prompted some governments to suspend their participation in overseas military training. In July, the government of Thailand announced that its forces would indefinitely suspend participation in overseas exercises. The move followed the infection of a dozen Thai soldiers with COVID-19 following exercises with the U.S. Army in Hawaii.

That has led to pressure on the U.S. Navy to cancel RIMPAC this year. Hawaii Gov. David Ige requested a delay in the training when the pandemic first landed in the islands. The Navy did ultimately opt to delay and reconfigure RIMPAC, but has resisted the call to cancel it entirely.

Navy officials say that RIMPAC and exercises like it are critical to maintaining the ocean-spanning web of alliances and partnerships on which the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is based.  As Navy Captain Jay Steingold, exercise director for RIMPAC,  put it, “you can’t surge trust.”

In an interview with HPR, Goldstein said that is a favorite line of Vice Admiral Scott Conn, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet, which is responsible for operations in the North and East Pacific.

Equipment, tactics, and even language can vary greatly among the dozens of U.S. partner nations across the region. Steingold says exercises like RIMPAC are how trust and interoperability among the partners are built and maintained, something that cannot be done quickly when a crisis breaks out.

He also notes that both the U.S. and partner navies have committed to health precautions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition to being almost entirely at sea, participating crews have all undergone a 14-day restriction of movement (military-speak for a home quarantine) prior to departing for Hawaii waters. They are also being monitored regularly for symptoms.

On land, the number of personnel used to manage and oversee the training has been reduced to less than 10% of normal numbers, although the Navy did not specify the exact number. Steingold says those personnel flew via military aircraft to limit exposure and all performed a 14-day quarantine on Honolulu’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and were given a COIVD-19 test following quarantine.

However, those measures have not satisfied those calling for RIMPAC 2020 to be canceled. Kyle Kajihiro, of the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition, described the training as “not an essential activity” and noted that the United Nations has called for a global ceasefire during the pandemic.

Kajihiro cites the infection of the Thai army soldiers in Hawaii as an example of how military exercises can serve as a vector for transmission. He says the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition isn’t satisfied with an at-sea only exercise because it will still include personnel on shore, however limited.

The group is also not inclined to take the Navy at its word regarding the efficacy of health precautions, due in large part to what Kajihiro  describes as “the secrecy” surrounding COVID-19 within the ranks.

“They’ve kept the number of cases from the public,” he noted. “We can’t even know what’s going on, how the military has been controlling the virus. So the safest measure would have been for them to cancel RIMPAC altogether.”

The Department of Defense does regularly disclose the number of cases within the ranks worldwide, but so far has not released more localized figures.

Earlier this month, the head of Honolulu-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, revealed that U.S. military personnel and their families account for 7 percent of Hawaii’s coronavirus cases. That is roughly equivalent to their share of the statewide population.

Local opposition is nothing new for RIMPAC. The exercise has long attracted protests over its environmental impact and reports that it leads to an increase in prostitution and sex trafficking.

Residents hoping to observe the action this year will likely be disappointed. Apart from a few ships pulling into Pearl Harbor to refuel and restock supplies, most of the action will take place over the horizon and out of view from land.

One notable exception will be a missile launch from the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. In an event known as a Sinking Exercise or SINKEX, the Navy will fire live ordnance at a decommissioned warship with the intent of sinking the derelict vessel.