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What the World's Largest Naval Exercise Reveals About Modern-Day Warfare

VICE News visited RIMPAC 2014. We spoke to a Canadian Rear Admiral about what it all means, and why Griffon must be protected from Orion.

by Ryan Faith
Aug 11 2014, 5:00pm

Photo by Jake Burghart

This July, a US-led military coalition of 22 nations employed a massive military force — 49 naval surface ships, 6 submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 people — in an effort to counter terrorism, defang military threats, and improve stability in the Pacific. This effort balanced a huge range of priorities, but a top commander told us that the coalition was ultimately able to successfully ensure stability throughout the Coaster Islands, home to the nations of Griffon and Orion.

The international forces came to the aid of Griffon, a liberal democratic republic and important regional economy, to help it withstand the increasingly aggressive actions of the military junta running neighboring Orion. The conflict between the two nations had been rapidly escalating, and had already started drawing in other nations in the region, such as Pandora and Yolo. Fortunately, the coalition effort has been a terrific success.

All in all this is a good thing, even if (or maybe because) Griffon, Orion, Pandora, and Yolo — to use some specific geopolitical terms — don’t necessarily “exist” and are kind of “imaginary and made-up.” This may be a more worthwhile feat than it sounds, considering all the chaos that has attended the formation over other countries that may not actually “exist” (at least as far as the international community is concerned): the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the Republic of South Ossetia, the Republic of Abkhazia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the Islamic State.

Fortunately, this whole shebang turned out to all be on purpose — it’s all part of the world’s largest military exercise, called the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or RIMPAC for short. RIMPAC has been going on 1971, and is currently held every other year. Until 2010, the US held the most senior leadership positions, as the exercise was a US-led exercise with international participants. However, the allocation of top roles started changing in 2012, when an Australian was put in charge of the maritime component, and Canada has also taken on a key role as RIMPAC changes to a more global event. This year, the seven top leadership positions were held by three Americans, two Australians, with the remaining two held by Japan and Canada.

VICE News was recently out at RIMPAC to learn about what’s new in the world of naval operations and see what was going on. We sat down to talk with Rear-Admiral Gilles Couturier of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Combined Forces Maritime Component Commander for RIMPAC 2014 — the guy in charge of all the naval stuff (no small job when you’re talking about the world’s largest naval exercise).

VICE News: During the last RIMPAC your position was filled by an Australian, and now it is being filled by a Canadian, so it seems like the US is getting a lot more comfortable with this relationship with international partners in general and with the Five Eyes [the intelligence alliance between the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand] in particular. Is that your perception?
Rear Admiral Gilles Couturier: Well I would hope so, [laughs] if they're giving us the position, but I think your assessment is very good. Canada has done RIMPAC together with the US for a really long time. We were one of the first participants in 1971. We're very comfortable with how we already operate together based on real-life events where we participate alongside US forces, Afghanistan being one of them. Over all of the previous RIMPAC Exercises we grew from a back-unit, to a deputy commander, to a task force commander, to now. So it's a relationship that's grown over the time, and historically the US has always had a strong relationship with Australia and Canada.

My deputy this year was a Chilean and my boss was an American, but within my command, the battle group commander, and the overall ASW commander were American, but after that I had an Australian there. There was also a Korean in the one-star position, so a very broad spectrum of command and control. We will see many countries aspiring to higher levels of command. I don't think Canada will have exclusive access to senior positions, but we appreciate being able to play this role; we'll hug our position close because of the experience it brings to us.

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Military exercises serve a lot of different roles, and the emphasis from one to the next can vary significantly. Some are meant to marshal forces in preparation for war under the guise of peaceful activity, others are more intentionally rattle sabers at would-be opponents. Others are really intended to be training exercises in the purest sense of the term. But RIMPAC is so large and extensive that, in some ways, it’s really an exercise of exercises — an umbrella effort that folds into a huge number of smaller constituent efforts. Very broadly, RIMPAC is organized into three parts: a planning portion, a portion at sea, and a final, massive simulation.

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In photos: the world's largest naval exercise, RIMPAC 2014. Read more here.

This is a 30-day exercise with many nations and a huge number of ships. So does this mean you have to treat it as a series of smaller exercises being carried out under one umbrella?
There's a first phase that allows us to coordinate and discuss how we're going to make the mission work and how we’ll execute the rest of the exercise. You've got operators that are getting together to make sure that all the messages and orders are ready to go. So that's the first session.

The next phase is a major round that addresses the training needs of the participants. The orders for this come from a 300-page book, with about 2,000 lines listing events for individual ships. We have ships sail together in smaller groups called Task Units. The ships in Task Units go and work on the basics, like learning to communicate together, do basic procedures. They do some boardings too, some very basic gunnery. So the first five or six days are about learning to operate at sea together. It's a mix of nations and everything else, under a commander; usually one of the ship's captains is responsible.

Then you go to the next phase; the advanced phase. When we get some of those Task Units together, and form a Task Force, to do advanced anti-submarine warfare, advanced gunnery, and war at sea exercises with one big unit being responsible, trying to coordinate all those ships together, and make sure these new combinations of different ships and different countries work. The ships also share some tactics, training, and procedures. No two countries use the same exact tactics, but we find out, as we operate, that the tactics are all pretty similar at a basic level. If there is a submarine, we know what to do; if there's an aircraft coming, the goal is to shoot it down. How you get to the point of shooting it down? That's the point of the practice.

The final phase is really the tactical phase [which is where Griffon, Orion, Pandora, and Yolo come in]. So we start with the PHOTOEX — the photo of all the ships together from that year. In the context of the scenario it's a show of force; before we deploy we arrive in the region, to tell them, “Here are 42 ships, including submarines and carriers and oilers, and we're showing up in your neck of the woods. Heads up!” Of course, if the show of force doesn't convince [the imaginary leadership of the imaginary country of Orion to knock off the crap] and the bad guys start shooting at us, then we react, and take some actions. So that's the phases of the scenario.

The RIMPAC 2014 PHOTOEX (photo exercise). Photo by by PO1 Shannon Renfroe, via US Navy

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For all the naval firepower being brought to bear, it’s worth noting that the ultimate focus of the training really isn’t focused exclusively (or even mainly) on fighting traditional naval battles.

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So throughout RIMPAC it's pretty much had a strong focus on asymmetric warfare threats like piracy and terrorism, rather than traditional naval conflict?
So, the core war-fighting skills are still more or less always there. But we try to understand what's happening around the world, what some of the participating navies are actually facing in the real world. That’s most of our mission, and we try and develop those skills and put that training into the scenarios.

While I talk a lot about ships, there are other important elements in RIMPAC, such as submarines and amphibious assault. There is also a significant mine warfare element, which involved about 1,000 folks. This is a very rigorous training event. Mine warfare is also another area where many navies don't get to exercise, so RIMPAC actually gives us the umbrella to get countries together to do that.

Is this a bigger mine warfare component than in previous exercises? Is a focus on mine warfare a commentary about the global consensus on security or stability?
What worries people about mine warfare is that it's really cheap. With a $12,000 mine, think about the damage you can do. You have the [suicide attack on the] USS Cole, and the list goes on from there. So we want to make sure we maintain our skills, and it's very, very specialized. So we need to get RIMPAC to provide training for some of the key operators (such as the US, the Brits, Australians, Japanese, and Belgians). They are some of the key folks that spend a lot of the time dealing with mines. We always realize that we don't spend enough time training for it.

The US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Japan are all maritime nations that rely very heavily on shipping.
The Iranian scenario has changed recently, but one of the critical Iranian threats was that they were going to mine the Strait [of Hormuz]. So how do we respond to that? So we had an exercise that we ran out of there, and that got a lot of participants. RIMPAC is another way of training for and being ready to respond to threats like that.

Traditionally, the US Coast Guard has taken on a lot of naval roles not related to war while the Navy was geared towards war-fighting. Now we see the US Navy is now getting involved in different roles, like anti-piracy and humanitarian missions. Does RIMPAC reflect this change?
So, we think that RIMPAC has addressed a broad range of roles. We had a very significant Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) event led by the Japanese based on their expertise in that field. Regrettably, they have recently been faced with those types of challenges on a normal basis.

We’ve involved some UN participants and UN agencies. We had a US ambassador participating to give us a real sense of the “Yes, I'm the senior representative for the Secretary General” flavor. This was the first time we took it to that level, and that's where it's here to stay. I believe.

So back to what do we want out of this, we want to be realistic. Take the Canadian example; they have an earthquake rescue team that's ready to deploy. Canada doesn’t ship them too much because most of the time it's too far away from us, so we've got a C17 [aircraft] prepared to load them up, and they come and participate in the scenarios. You've also got the USNS Mercy [US Navy hospital ship], that's always available, you've got the Peace Ark, which was sent here by our Chinese friends. So these are all elements that added value to the overall context of the region, and I think that we're going to keep that going.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship, the Peace Ark, at RIMPAC 2014. Photo by Jake Burghart

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Which actually brings us back to the real clash of imaginary countries mentioned at the outset of the article.

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Coutrier: So, in broad concept there is a country called Griffon and they've got two problems. They've got resistance within the country, and then there's a neighbor called Orion, which is being a little bit pushy, and believes that they're responsible for securing the region, and that the government of Griffon is not really good. Orion thinks they should be able to help shape the government of Griffon to achieve their goal. There are two other countries in the corner that are mainly controls. There is a country called Yolo (which is represented by the port of San Diego). Yolo allows us to practice a little bit of mine warfare. Finally, there's the country of Pandora; they have a bunch of oil platforms around the region and that allows us to exercise a little bit of oil-plat defense, and piracy defense in the region.

So it's another way of shaping, and meeting a lot of objectives of the training defenses. In Griffon, the armed resistance got a bit more aggressive than usual, so we are doing an evacuation of all the people in the embassy, so that was yesterday's program. And today we are going to take on some of the terrorist camps, we're going to take over the training site and where they build IEDs, and test the amphibious assault elements of that scenario.

The world's largest naval exercise, RIMPAC 2014: on the ground. Read more here.

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Not only is the Orion-backed insurgency operating in Griffon seeking to destabilize and undermine the government, Orion has been creating a lot of other grief. An April article from a Hawaiian paper (the exercise is managed out of the US Pacific Command, is based on the island of Oahu) explains some of the other shenanigans that the imaginary nations have up to: “Piracy within the region is on the rise, as are hostilities by Orion toward Griffon. Orion harassment of Griffon shipping includes detaining merchant vessels, siphoning of refined oil products, and eventually firing upon and sinking vessels.”

This list of activities, against which RIMPAC training is set, ultimately reflects the training priorities of the participating nations. Despite the fact that there’s been a lot of fighting around the globe for more than a decade, a lot of these conflicts look less like a good, old-fashioned state-to-state slugging match and a lot more like a messier kind of conflict that increasingly forces militaries to look more and more like police. With that transition, the use of force has become an increasingly political activity, demanding the formation of international coalitions. And more and more countries want in on the future coalitions, it seems.

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While there’s been a lot of attention paid to the first-time participation of China in RIMPAC, the training this morning involved a sizable Mexican force. Is RIMPAC shifting the focus from the Pacific as East Asia only to a broader concept?
You had Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. So Colombia had a ship and Mexico had a ship. Peru had no ship, but they had a significant role and had some land components, and I had Peruvian staff working with me. I had Filipinos, so... yes, that is the answer. All the countries see RIMPAC as a great way of getting together and using a big coalition.

It’s not every day that you get an opportunity to work with that many countries. And there are some great lessons to be learned. Another country that was here, not for the first time, but joining with a ship for the first time was India. One of the senior staff that they sent worked with me and he is a very bright officer. Our thinking aligned unbelievably well, although he is working from a different background. So the opportunity to work in such big environment both from at sea and from a staff perspective is really interesting for all of you, from all countries.

From a Canadian perspective, having this also means we've been able to bring in a team of staff to support our effort. We see that as it is a great opportunity for our Majors and Lieutenant Colonels to learn how to operate on a big staff together if we deploy at some point.

So if we have the opportunity to send troops who understand how this big international staff works, this is value added to us, because that can help shape the way the future goes. And that contributes to the overall goals of RIMPAC.

So nations are able to plug into much higher levels of staff training, working with much larger-scale efforts than they would normally?
You are absolutely correct. We have about 200 staff right now. I've never seen a deployment with 200 staff, and I've worked in some pretty big organizations before.

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So RIMPAC is all-international, all-learning to deal more delicately and professionally with specific challenges that will emerge from non-state actors in an increasingly globalized world. All laudable developments, except that this kind of international cooperation that people seem to praise with reckless abandon isn’t cheap or easy. In fact, it can be a real pain in the ass.

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Coutrier: Communication has always been an issue. It will always be, because we do not all have the same equipment. There is a pretty solid base of capabilities for most of the counties; there are some who don't contribute as much, and that's all part of the challenge we're facing. But communication is the main element. It’s not just equipment. The other part of communication is understanding each other, because what's being said and what's being understood are different. That always comes up and we've got to work on that.

In Europe, there are a lot of established organizations like NATO that collectively work on communications and interoperability to make it easier for partners to cooperate and mitigate problems like these. However, most of the world isn’t in the Pacific, and the Pacific doesn’t have a lot of pre-built military alliance organizations just lying around.

There are alliance structures and institutional bureaucracies that are built around multi-national cooperation. RIMPAC, by comparison, is very task-oriented by comparison. Do you imagine that in times of crisis, the sort of cooperation you see every two years here will unfold on demand? Or will the Pacific be better served by creating some sort of formal structure?
NATO is an example of formal structure. We have a standing naval force and a maritime group is the same. NATO has a group of ships that deploy, and we saw that in use during the Ukraine situation as part of a local show of force. You're absolutely right, that there is no such thinking here in the Pacific. I think RIMPAC does fill some of that role of bringing people together. We need to make sure that we learn how to operate together as a team, understanding the coalition aspect, but I don't think there's any intent in the near term to create a permanent structure.

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Which means that really, the underlying point of RIMPAC isn’t just about the training for technical tasks, but training officers and decision makers about how to build and operate a massive international coalition on the fly. But rather, it’s how to get everyone to form a coalition to tackle a major international crisis at the drop of a hat.

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Coutrier: There is a lot of focus on the training scenario and other things. One of my goals is that the sailors will leave here better trained and more proficient, that the ships will leave better trained and more proficient; that the ships and sailors will know how to work in a Task Unit and in a Task Force. You can't buy that experience for a sailor or for a community, so that's very important to us.

The other element to keep in mind is the professional relationship we build among the people at RIMPAC. At our command level this is great. I can grab the phone now and call eight of the guys I am working with here if I find out tomorrow there’s war breaking out somewhere. You could put all of us together, maybe bring us a bit more staff and get to work on it. You've got the foundation of a trust relationship you can't buy anywhere.

But back to my staff issue. So the young commanders that have worked together, one, they learn, two, they learn how the other guys work, and three, they have created that professional bond that hard to create out of nowhere. You can't build that over a few days. So a month together, working with a little bit of stress (no one is dying here, so this is not that level of stress) will help build that bond. When I say I need a plan that has to be drafted and presented to me by 7:00AM and it's 10:00PM the night before, there’s a little bit of stress, and they have to get on with it. So that professional bond that's being forged here is really, really important to us.

Another thing that we need to work on when we have a big group of ships and a big group of aircraft is how to build an operational plan to support what the situation is giving us. This is a test, not only of the ability of the commander, but of how the staff reacts. In 2010, I was the guy running around. This time around, I was the guy giving direction, and at some point you realize that your plan is never as good as the first contact with the enemy. We keep relearning that we would want more staff to help us react to what the enemy is throwing at us. But the reality is that you're never going to have that. So you need to be able to flex a little bit quicker, and that was something we learned.

On the positive side, the training scenario (with Griffon, Orion, Pandora, and Yolo) is very robust. It allows us to meet all of the training perspectives, and it really challenges us on all command. I spent a lot of hours on it that I didn't expect to spend on it. I was coming back after 14-, 15-hour days saying: “We've got to come back tomorrow and there are still some things in the cards that we have to fix.” So it’s all really been very challenging.

Overall, it’s really a crawl-walk on approach. At the beginning, the exercise is really for the operators, and we think our plan is going to work well and everything else. Then we get to it and it's easy to push the envelope. So that’s good, that's part of it.

Then we go to the training objective, and that's where the international staff gets tested. I got briefed by Chilean, Indian, and Korean officers about various plans. So everything is so perfect. Suddenly they're getting thrown a hook. You put them in the bridge, they talk to the two-star, and they learn that that's how it’s really going to work there.

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So no, we can’t forget that this is still a military exercise — even if the fact that a military is a military and trained to do military things seems to shock some poor, sensitive souls. But the far more interesting part of this exercise isn’t the military portion of the training in and of itself. Rather, it’s that RIMPAC suggests that we’re beginning to treat national militaries a little more like the individual armies once levied by local lords, barons, and dukes, who have to be called up and summoned by a distant King or Queen to face any serious existential threat to the realm.

But in the 21st century, summoning the armies of the realm may not be about conventional military conflict, but something closer to policing missions. Perhaps a lot of the threats to the realm of international order won’t be foreign armies assembling on the battlefield, but will arise from the various barbarians at the gate. Many of them seem bound and determined to make their case that their imaginary made-up countries really do exist and deserve to be considered part of the international system, even if they have to trash the international system and its norms and agreements to do it. So training a force to fight some imaginary countries and protect others might not be anywhere near insane at all.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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