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Pacific war games heat up

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), pulls into Naval Base Guam for a scheduled port visit, June 19. Photo courtesy of US Navy

By James C. Pearce

The United States and Russia are upping the military ante in the Pacific, as the world enters a new and potentially dangerous era.

On June 17, the U.S.’s Valiant Shield (VS) 2024 conducted a sinking exercise,

or SINKEX, more than 40 nautical miles from land in the North Pacific Ocean.

A day later, the Pacific Fleet of the Russian Navy began holding exercises in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, according to Tass, a Russian state news agency.

A SINKEX generally involves air, surface, and undersea military units conducting live-fire training against a physical target.

SINKEXs give participants an opportunity to gain proficiency and confidence in their weapons and systems through realistic training that cannot be duplicated in simulators. 

These exercises allow forces across the Indo-Pacific the opportunity to integrate Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Space Force, and partner nations to train in precise, lethal, and overwhelming multi-axis, multi-domain effects that demonstrate the strength and versatility of the Joint and Combined Force.

The Russian drills reportedly involve about 40 ships, boats and support vessels, 20 naval aircraft and helicopters, including long-range anti-submarine aircraft Tu-142M3, Il-38 and Il-38N, as well as anti-submarine and search and rescue helicopters.

The news came a day after Russian navy vessels left Havana, having arrived at the Cuban capital’s harbor last week. The move was widely seen as a Russian show of force. Cuban nationals are also reportedly fighting for the Russian army in Ukraine.

Russia routinely carries out drills in Pacific waters off its Far East coast, also as a show of naval strength, but Western countries have watched them with increased

anxiety since the outbreak of war in Ukraine two years ago.

On the same day as the U.S.’ SINKEX, former president Donald Trump’s last national security adviser called on the Pentagon to deploy the “entire” Marine Corps to the Pacific as a bulwark against China’s increasing military might.

In a wide-ranging Foreign Affairs op-ed, Robert O’Brien wrote that the Defense Department should consider “relieving” the Marine Corps of missions in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa to focus on the Pacific.

What this first shows, is a rare moment of bipartisan agreement. Both Republicans and Democrats are taking threats in the Pacific very seriously and it is likely to be high on the agenda of the next presidential administration. Whether moving all of the Marines to the Pacific would be wise, or even achievable, remains to be seen.

The Russian drills also came a day ahead of a visit by President Vladimir Putin to North Korea.

Pyongyang has backed Russia’s invasion and is widely thought to be supplying Russia with weapons and armaments in the war against Ukraine. In return, Pyongyang has eased tourism visa restrictions for Russian citizens and allows some North Koreans to work in certain industries on Russian territory.

Yet, North Korea is also thought to be expanding its nuclear program and has conducted several tests in the past few years. A closer relationship with Russia provides it with some diplomatic cover.

While in Pyongyang, Putin and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, signed a deal to help each other in the event of "aggression" against either country.

Ambiguous wording and unclear meaning, there is some reason for alarm, and not just in D.C. Russia has been developing its own technological systems over the past decade very successfully. It has the ability to be a tech-independent country.

If North Korea can get a hold of better technology and develop higher-quality weapons, all countries in the region should be concerned.

At present, North Korea produces lower-tech weapons and its ability to keep producing them and supplying Moscow remains unclear. China will be especially worried if that changes.

Beijing has been doing its best to ensure there are as few Western friendly nations in the Indo-Pacific as possible. And precisely what it does not want is more U.S. or NATO weapons in the region. Nor would it appreciate Russia and North Korea ‘going rogue’. On the topic of China, O’Brien also noted that, “U.S. bases in the Pacific often lack adequate missile defenses and fighter jet protection — a scandalous deficiency that the Defense Department should fix by quickly shifting resources from elsewhere.” 

He argued for another aircraft carrier and to consider bolstering U.S. forces in The Philippines, and rebuilding the militaries of Indonesia and Vietnam through loans and grants, as a means of deterrence.  

However, that is improbable. China has doubled the size of its arsenal since 2020 and is working tirelessly to flip countries in the region. It recently signed another trade deal with New Zealand, whose prime minister has been on an Indo-Pacific tour, and is mulling to join AUKUS.

This trip did not make headlines for any great weapons, trade deals or military agreements. His plane broke down and he had to fly to Japan commercially.

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