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Navies train in Hawai‘i as ocean turns to battlefield

HONOLULU — The biennial Rim of the Pacific, the world’s largest recurring naval exercise, is underway in Hawai‘i and San Diego, bringing together 40 warships from 29 countries.

The ships are moored up for the exercise’s “harbor phase” as ships refuel and restock supplies, while their crews from around the world get to know each other through training and cultural exchanges.

“To bring 40 ships together, that is a feat in and of itself,” said Capt. Matthew Thomas, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. “That’s getting all the ships talking together on the radio, on our computer networks, and then simply sailing out (to sea) and putting ships and aircraft in various operating areas.”

The San Diego-based Carl Vinson is the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1, and will play a central role in the exercise as participating forces learn to work together, overcoming language barriers and finding ways to make their equipment work together in the event of a crisis — whether that be armed conflict or a natural disaster.

The exercise takes place as oceans around the world have increasingly become a stage for international competition and sometimes violence.

“It’s much better to know your friends before you need your friends,” said carrier strike group commander Rear Adm. Michael Wosje. “I’ll have an opportunity to fly over to those ships. We will have an opportunity to practice procedures together, operate our aircraft and helicopters together, and many other different types of platforms where we’re able to from seabed to space, be able to operate and integrate together.”

For many of those participating, it’s a return. Capt. Mahamad Nazir, commander of the Malaysian navy’s missile frigate KD Lekiu, said, “The most important thing is friendship and connections.”

The Lekiu first participated in RIMPAC in 2018 but has a long history responding to various crises both on land and at sea. In 2008 the ship was deployed to the Gulf of Aden to support international efforts to protect international cargo ships from Somali pirates. It ultimately helped return two Malaysian International Shipping Corp. ships that had been hijacked.

Just years later it would respond to a crisis at home, the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff, during which Malaysian security forces fought Islamist militants from the Philippines who seized territory in Malaysia. The Lekiu was part of a blockade that also received support from the Philippine navy.

“The best thing we can do (at RIMPAC) is enhance our military engagement with all the states, and we’re looking forward to have a good relationship between countries,” Nazir said.

Most of the time, the Malaysian navy is busy patrolling in the Malacca Strait, where ships coming from the Indian Ocean most commonly enter into the Pacific, sailing into the South China Sea. Lt. Cmdr. Mohammed Zulhairi, an officer on the Lekiu, said, “The Malacca Strait is one of the most important routes, and also busiest routes.”

More than a third of all international trade travels through the South China Sea, including a significant portion of the oil that powers Hawai‘i’s electrical grid.

“A significant portion of the world’s prosperity, of course, is generated or flows through these waters, and it is too large for any single nation, of course, to be responsible for,” Wosje said. “Which is why we are here with 29 nations.”

The Lekiu is docked at Pearl Harbor one pier down from the Dutch navy’s HNLMS Tromp. Though the Netherlands has in the past sent military personnel to RIMPAC, the Tromp is the first Dutch warship to sail to Hawaii for the exercise. The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Yvonne van Beusekom, said, “The Netherlands is almost literally on the other side of the world from here, so it’s very special for us to be here.”

On the way to Hawai‘i, the Tromp sailed through the Red Sea, where it participated in Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international naval mission to protect international shipping from attacks and hijackings by Islamist Houthi militants in Yemen. The militants have attacked merchant ships in the Red Sea with a mixture of shore-based missiles and drones, helicopters and boats.

The first fatal attack was in March when militants struck the M/V True Confidence — a Barbadian-flagged, Liberian-owned bulk carrier — killing three Filipino seafarers and wounding several others. This month another Filipino sailor was killed in a Houthi strike against the M/V Tutor, a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned ship.

The Houthis say the attacks are intended as an act of solidarity with Palestinians as Israel continues to wage an offensive in Gaza that has leveled entire neighborhoods and killed thousands in retaliation for the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel by the militant group Hamas. The Houthis pledged to attack any ship they believe is traveling to or from Israel. But it also has routinely attacked ships that don’t have clear ties to Israel — including both the True Confidence and Tutor.

From the Red Sea the Tromp sailed through the Indian Ocean and through the Pacific, passing through the South China Sea — where it stopped in Vietnam — and sailed across the Taiwan Strait to make a port call in South Korea.

“While traveling over here, we were passing the Indo-Pacific region, visiting several ports and realizing how important this region is,” van Beusekom said. “The Netherlands is a trading country. Much of our trade goes from and to Asia, so it’s a vitally important area for us.”

Along the way, the ship had several encounters with the Chinese military — including a close encounter that made news around the region when a Chinese military helicopter flew toward a helicopter assigned to the Tromp as it was participating in the United Nations mission enforcing sanctions on North Korea. When asked by a Taiwanese reporter about the incident, van Beusekom said, “It was potentially unsafe as the helicopter was very close to our helicopter, but we were able to continue to mission.”

China participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and 2016 as an invited guest but had its 2018 invitation rescinded by the U.S. Navy as relations began to sour between Washington and Beijing. China has been embroiled with neighboring countries in a series of disputes over maritime territorial and navigation rights. In particular, Beijing insists the South China Sea is its exclusive sovereign territory, over the objections of its neighbors.

The Philippines had planned to send a ship to this year’s RIMPAC but ultimately decided to keep it near its own shores as tensions ramp up between Beijing and Manilla. Over the past decade the Chinese military has built bases on disputed islands, reefs and atolls to assert its claims and has attacked Filipino fishermen. This month, members of the Chinese coast guard rammed and boarded Philippine navy boats that were resupplying an outpost in disputed territory. One Philippine navy sailor lost a finger during the altercation.
Source: The Garden Island

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