By Rear Adm. Frederick J. “Fritz” Roegge, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet
There were two primary goals in this year’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) theater anti-submarine warfare exercise:
• Training RIMPAC forces to improve our ability to operate together
• The safety of RIMPAC submarines and personnel while training in the Hawaiian operating area.
Meeting these objectives is no small task: RIMPAC 2016 was the largest ever, featuring 42 surface ships and five submarines from 26 nations, for many of whom English is a second language.
To enhance exercise safety, there’s an escalating series of training events. This process begins with briefing and training in port during the harbor phase, progresses through unit-level training in coordinated anti-submarine exercises, followed by group-level training through integrated operations, and culminates with “free play.” If our training is effective and we do our job well managing waterspace and preventing interference, then every participating ship will complete RIMPAC with no scraped paint, dented fenders, or worse. Preparing for what could be worse, however, is also part of RIMPAC.
As the size of RIMPAC increases, so does its complexity and the scope of its events. This year it’s notable that RIMPAC participants conducted their first-ever bilateral and multinational submarine rescue vignette. The humanitarian nature of search and rescue makes for common ground; all countries should be able to cooperate in submarine rescue, but good intentions aren’t enough. It also requires highly specialized equipment and expertise that must be practiced.
Approximately 50 navy, military, and civilian personnel from eight countries kicked off the submarine escape and rescue exercise with a symposium where participants reviewed global submarine search and rescue techniques, including the use of the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office rescue coordination website. Australia, Canada, Chile, China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom joined us for the symposium, which was followed by a submarine rescue tabletop exercise held at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The tabletop exercise was structured to take participants through the critical decision-making process of searching for and locating a disabled submarine.
China and the United States led a multilateral submarine rescue tabletop
exercise at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during RIMPAC 2016.
Photo by Kaiqiang Li
The nations participating in the tabletop exercise worked through the complex scenario for global rescue system deployment and exchanged ideas on ways to further improve cooperation for any real event with an overall goal of minimizing time to first rescue.
Following the tabletop exercise, participants practiced what they learned and took their partnership to sea.
During the at-sea exercise, U.S. Navy submarine rescue experts embarked aboard the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine rescue ship Changdao (ASR 867) and worked with PLAN counterparts to launch the ship’s undersea rescue vehicle, LR-7. The purpose of this event was to determine whether the LR-7 is compatible with the rescue seating surfaces on western submarines. To do this, the U.S. Navy used a seating surface of the correct dimensions that can be used for training. Divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One, using their mixed-gas helium-oxygen deep diving system from Military Sealift Command’s Rescue and Salvage Ship USNS Safeguard, placed this training rescue seat on the ocean bottom just off the coast of Oahu. The LR-7 then conducted a successful, first-ever mating evolution with this faux-U.S. rescue seat.
A sailor from the Chinese navy submarine rescue ship Changdao (867)
sits in an LR-7 submersible undersea rescue vehicle off the coast of
Hawaii following a successful mating evolution between the LR-7
and a U.S. faux-NATO rescue seat laid by USNS Safeguard (T-ARS 50)
There are more than 400 submarines operating around the world and their numbers are growing. The ocean is not very forgiving, so although it’s rare for a modern submarine to become disabled, it’s not unprecedented. As with insurance, one hopes that these submarine rescue skills will never be needed in a real-world scenario, but it’s important that we have them and that we’re ready at a moment’s notice to use them. With the successful completion of these RIMPAC submarine escape and rescue events, we’ve added to the community’s ability to respond should there ever be a need to do so.
Twenty-six nations, more than 45 surface ships and 5 submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel participated in Rim of the Pacific 2016, more countries and personnel than in any previous years. This year’s RIMPAC marked the 25th in the series that began in 1971 and is now held every two years.
This year’s exercise participants were Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, People’s Republic of China, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga, United Kingdom, in addition to the United States.
The U.S., Australia and Canada have participated in all 25 RIMPACs since 1971. RIMPAC 2016 marked the first time Denmark, Germany and Italy participated in the maritime exercise. Each nation displayed capabilities ranging from disaster relief and maritime security operations to sea control and complex warfighting exercises, including a mass casualty drill, replenishments at sea, submarine search and rescue, aircraft refueling and multi-day diving operations.