Published July 18, 2012
Off the coast of Oahu, air operations on the deck of the amphibious assault ship the USS Essex have helicopters landing from all directions. Sailors and Marines are on board along with military personnel from countries like Malaysia, Canada and even Tonga.
"I think it is very important for us as a small nation around the Pacific Rim to be here," Inoke Fonua, a Tongan marine tells me. "We really need the help of the big nations like America, Canada and Australia, especially New Zealand because they are so close by."
While the Pacific is vast, the closeness of these nations is imperative. To ensure security, safety and cooperation, big nations like the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia are hosting the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or RIMPAC. With exercises on and around the Hawaiian Islands, it is the world's largest international maritime exercise, with 22 nations, 42 ships, 200 aircraft and 25,000 people all taking part in maneuvers.
"It is too large for any one country to be everywhere at one time, so the ability of the countries within the region to bring their capabilities together to benefit the region ... benefits not only the United States, but a region as a whole," U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Simcock said.
Some will argue that the region is more strategic and yet delicate than ever before, with China continuing its buildup and tensions in the South China Sea. In response, countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia are also ramping up their naval forces in the region. This puts pressure on all who use the waterways, and the chance for an encounter increases by the hour.
RIMPAC helps alleviate some of this tension, but it also strengthens ties among friendly nations. Some are allies by treaty with the U.S., while others are friends by handshake. Either way, this biannual exercise opens communication and develops relationships that not only benefit our country, but those we consider friends.
As we overlook the deck of the Essex (called Vulchers Row because you can watch it all from this vantage point) and watch sailors and Marines continue their maneuvers, we get the chance to meet and talk with U.S. Navy Captain Jonathan Harnden, who emphasizes RIMPAC's importance.
"Everyone does things a little differently. Everyone has techniques that are different," he said. "They have different terminology, different procedure, different standards ... and some of these operations are very complex."
Capt. Harnden tells me with each exercise that complexity is broken down and nations and navies begin to understand each other better. Even the best of friends need to learn each other's ways to ensure their is no miscommunication.
From our perch atop the ship, we head down an endless number of narrow and steep medal stairs and ladders that connect the decks on the Essex. From past experience, it only takes a few steps before you get used to hoisting the TV gear over your shoulder and quickly wedge your way up or down the steps as fast as you can. Someone is always waiting at either end.
While on this endless trek, we enjoy the friendly ribbing between services. The Navy guys joke that the Marines just "clog walkways and workout." The Marines waste little time making fun of the easy life sailors get onboard.
As we reach the "well deck," which is at water level, we see the importance that along with the military buildup in the Pacific, there is also the increased pressure to respond to humanitarian crisis. We have seen that firsthand in the last few years with multinational cooperation necessary to respond to the Southeast Asian tsunami, the eathquake and tsunami in Japan and the quake in Haiti. For the first time RIMPAC has built this into the operations and training.
One of those operations here in the bowels of the ship involves the LCAC. It's basically a hovercraft platform that launches from the inside of the ship out into the Pacific and can reach speeds of about 50 mph on water, 20 mph on land, all while carrying 60 tons of supplies and or equipment.
As each unit launches, we get blasted with hot wind from the fans that propel it. Oil and exhaust spews into the well deck and over our gear and clothes. Even loose paint comes off the walls. The site and power is impressive, and the abilities our Navy and allies have is remarkable.
Before leaving the ship, we get the chance to meet the head of the Canadian Pacific Fleet, Commodore Peter Ellis. He, like every military leader we've met along this trip, is excited about how things have gone so far.
We speak of the Tongan Marines and their war dance that echoed through the ship earlier in the day, and the Malaysian sailors who sang choir-like tunes as people from 17 nations on board looked on.
Ellis puts it well: "We are building inoperability, we are building the ability to work together and along the way we are making lifelong friends. And I think that is really important."