U.S. Army and South Korean special operations service members conduct helocast operations during Rim of the Pacific, the world's largest international maritime exercise, in Hawaii, July 20, 2022.

U.S. Army and South Korean special operations service members conduct helocast operations during Rim of the Pacific, the world's largest international maritime exercise, in Hawaii, July 20, 2022. U.S. Army / Cpl. Djalma Vuong-De Ramos

CNO: Pacific Forces Can Learn from NATO’s Work with Ukraine

Leaders leave RIMPAC thinking about ways to increase info-sharing, international cooperation.

BELLOWS AIR FORCE STATION, Hawaii—Emerging from rough surf, Australian soldiers jumped from a trio of Zodiac boats and, rifles raised, moved shoulder-to-shoulder up the windy beach—and through a group of reporters with their cameras. The mock amphibious assault had been made possible by U.S. Marines who had air-dropped the boats from a CH-53E Super Stallion, bundled up in packages to be inflated and retrieved. 

The July 18 exercise—part of the giant Rim of the Pacific 2022 wargame—was a small example of the kind of cooperation between regional militaries that the U.S. Navy’s top admiral wants more of. In particular, America’s Pacific forces and allies can learn from NATO’s information coordination during the Ukraine crisis, Adm. Mike Gilday said during an interview with Defense One.

“We're still challenged with breaking down barriers to sharing information. We're still a bit too stove-piped,” Gilday said. “I hope that what we're seeing with information sharing in NATO, the U.S. sharing information in the public domain about what Russia’s done in Ukraine, that we just feel more comfortable in busting down those barriers and sharing information among these allies and partners that we're going to have to count on if we get into any kind of conflict out here in the Pacific.”

Gilday said the issue was discussed during an exercise briefing at Pacific Fleet headquarters. It’s something “that we have to take back, I think, as a lesson learned,” he said.

Exercise commander Vice Adm. Michael Boyle also cited western Europe’s response to Russia’s invasion.  

“If we can share information under a NATO umbrella, we should be able to share information more easily here,” Boyle said. “Potentially for the next RIMPAC it will be something for us to leverage, to expand how far we can go from a policy perspective… But I think it's demonstrated that there's—we can be more liberal with information sharing than we sometimes are.”

Boyle and his deputy, Royal Canadian Navy Rear Adm. Christopher Robinson, told reporters last month that this year’s RIMPAC did not incorporate lessons from Ukraine. That’s partly because the exercise’s plans had already been set, they said, but also because the Ukrainian conflict appears to be underlining familiar problems of warfare, like the importance of logistics and the dangers of anti-ship missiles. 

The lesson from the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, Boyle said, is that “they weren't prepared to protect themselves. Their material readiness, I don't believe was good. But ships at sea can be targeted. It takes a concerted defense-in-depth mindset to protect yourself from potential missiles.”

“So are we rehearsing during RIMPAC the types of tactics that you have to be good at for integrated air and missile defense? Yes.” 

Boyle said the new lessons from the Ukraine war are mainly at the strategic level, whereas RIMPAC is more focused on tactics. But leading up to the 2024 edition, participating countries could request specific training they want to conduct in the exercise based on what they have seen happen in Ukraine.

During his visit to RIMPAC, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told reporters that lessons from the war are already being implemented in the Pacific. “I won't go into specifics because I really—it's a national-security issue. And I'd rather not reveal the specific lessons that we are learning,” he said.

Tactical lessons

Up the road from the beach, troops from several countries were working together on basic infantry tactics and drills. The urban training area consisted of mock village centers with buildings and fake storefronts, similar to the ones at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where U.S. soldiers train before deploying overseas. Australian soldiers were paired up with Royal Tongan Marines to learn how to clear enemy forces from buildings.

Lt. Filise Siale, the Tongan platoon commander, told reporters that his men lacked a similar training environment back home.

“We will take back a lot of things, especially the drills and also the good times that we spent here,” Siale said. “We're going to share it with our friends and mates at work back at home. We're going to teach them new things that is updated for the kind of urban training.”

Two weeks before RIMPAC, the Tongans went to Australia to learn about their weapons and equipment, a visit that built cohesion between the two militaries. That experience helped during a joint assault exercise at RIMPAC, said Lance Cpl. Michael Price of the Royal Australian Regiment’s 1st Battalion.

“It was good. Because we worked together for those two weeks prior, we got a really good understanding of each other's capabilities and how we work together in teams,” Price said. “So we’re able to…work around each other while clearing buildings….Once we learn what we're doing with each other, [it] makes it really easy to flow.”

Elsewhere in the training area, U.S. Marines were working with Malaysian Army counterparts. 1st Lt. Charlie Pruett, a platoon commander with Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, said that a few small differences in the Malaysian tactics “just made a lot of sense to us—and had us alter the way that we like to do things as well.”

“Like how they have their hands on one another if they're in a stack outside of a door,” Pruett said. “So that as they go in they know exactly where everybody is. Just stuff that we hadn't really thought of, but that they do very well.”

The opportunity for Marines to talk and learn from other militaries is not just important for partnership building but survival.

“I think that more minds are always better than fewer,” Pruett said. “So, the more people that we can talk to and the more that we share tactics, the more we can figure out what the best way to do things are. So that if it ever has to happen for real, then we can bring all our boys home.”

RIMPAC’s strategic future

The world’s largest international maritime exercise will end on Thursday, sending ships and participants back to their home stations to process and share what they have trained on for more than a month. But the disintegration of the exercise’s planning and organizational structure among the countries might not have to happen in the future, especially as they face growing competition in the region.

Boyle, who leads San Diego-based 3rd Fleet, said RIMPAC has made him think that a standing organization might be useful to gather and train U.S. and international forces more frequently.

“Where all of these nations that come together [to] plan for RIMPAC, maybe enable us to come together to plan for disasters, submarine rescue, crisis, conflict, posturing when there are unpredictable times in history…when we know that the friction level goes up, and the risk of unintended escalation goes up,” he said. “It'd be great to have some mechanism that says, ‘Hey, what can you provide to posture, to ensure that nobody takes a step that would end up in some sort of escalation or conflict?’”

There have already been efforts to “rearrange the joint forces on O’ahu in particular, to operate and rehearse day to day,” Boyle said, by combining the Pacific headquarters of the military services under one structure to work together daily beyond just exercises.

“Because we're in competition. We need to start acting like we're in competition,” he said.