HONOLULU — The United States, particularly the Bush Administration, has often been accused by politicians, academics and assorted critics in other nations, including several in Asia, of acting unilaterally, a fancy word for going it alone.
A large-scale naval exercise just concluded in the seas around the Hawaiian Islands, however, suggests that such criticism is off the mark. Warships, submarines and aircraft from seven nations joined those of the U.S. for a month of drills, maneuvers and, especially, practice in sailing together. Officers from four more nations came along as observers.
Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the Pacific Fleet, which brought them all together, said in an interview the exercise, known as RIMPAC for Rim of the Pacific, featured two new elements: (1) “an operational level headquarters that allowed planning at a fairly high level” so that leaders could be trained in large operations as opposed to ship-driving tactics, and (2) the arrangement, for the first time, of all participants into a common information domain.
Everyone was using the same information network to share information, to plan, to work from a common operating picture. This automated system replaced the radio-telephone circuits used before.
This RIMPAC, the 20th in a series dating back to 1971, drew crews from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Chile, Peru and Britain. Observers came from India, Singapore, Malaysia and Ecuador. Russia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Mexico were invited but declined to send observers.
Observers were not invited from the Chinese Navy, which seeks the capability to project power away from China’s shores and into the Pacific, possibly to compete with the U.S. Navy. Chinese officers in June observed a U.S. Navy exercise centered on three aircraft carriers near the U.S. island territory of Guam.
The Pacific Command has been gradually expanding exchanges with China’s armed forces to try to assure the Chinese of peaceful American intentions and to preclude Chinese miscalculation. Roughead left open the possibility that China would be invited to watch RIMPAC in 2008 if other participating nations agreed.
Among the fundamental problems with RIMPAC and, indeed, any military operation that draws on forces from different nations is language. Although the operating language was English, RIMPAC this year included two crews who spoke Spanish and one each who spoke Korean and Japanese.
Yet the English spoken by Australians, Britons, Canadians and Americans is not necessarily the same. An Australian officer, Air Force Group Capt. Tony Needham, said, “A couple of people I tried to talk to had difficulty understanding me because of my Australian accent.
“I find that, of course, hard to understand,” he added with a chuckle.
Even among the Americans of different services there were garbles. Brig. Gen. Greg Inde of the U.S. Air Force, who ran an air operations center controlling more than 200 sorties a day of Navy and Air Force pilots, said: “We speak different languages and we found out initially that we have different acronyms. That’s why we practice, that’s why we have exercises.”
Each of the Chilean, Peruvian, Japanese and Korean ships had either officers who spoke English or translators. Nonetheless, working under pressure in a foreign language was difficult. That hurdle was overcome in three ways:
The Americans strived for brevity and clarity in their messages, particularly in cutting out American slang and idioms. Roughead said getting people to think through what they were trying to say was helpful.
The automated communications system produced written messages that were usually easier to grasp by those whose native language was not English. Moreover, the system had a “chat” function so that, if a message was not clear, a question could be asked immediately.
Naval tradition helped. Navies around the world have much in common, which eased language difficulties. That professionalism, the admiral said, also kept political tensions between Japan and Korea from spilling into RIMPAC.
The visiting crews have departed for home, but the work of RIMPAC is not over as Roughead has set his staff to capturing lessons learned. “We asked every participant immediately after the exercise was over to give us their recommendations.”
He said he had urged everyone to be candid. “I don’t want ‘happy dust,’ ” he said, “I want to know how we as a military force can be better.”
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