Rimpac '96 Showcases Military Might From Air, Land and Sea
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
BARKING SANDS PACIFIC MISSILE RANGE FACILITY, Hawaii, Jul. 9, 1996 A few snores; rustlings of restless men and women trying to get comfortable on the cold, stiff cots; the high-pitched hum of mosquitoes zeroing in on exposed ears; the thundering, crashing surf.
These were the sounds June 15 before sunrise, before the attack, a hundred yards from the shore on this remote sandy crescent in Kauai. Here rested the "insurgents" before their last, desperate attempt to control the independent nation of "Pacifica."
"We're ready," breathed Marine Capt. Steve Neary, commander of the opposing forces, after running hard along the beach a few hours earlier, checking his positions. Along with some 2,000 fellow Marines, Neary was enjoying the last days of Rimpac '96, a major maritime exercise.
Out there in the darkness of the nighttime Pacific Ocean, the month-long exercise was drawing to a close. More than 44 ships, 200 aircraft and 20,000 U.S. service members, including Coast Guardsmen, participated in various segments of the biennial exercise. Forces from other "rim of the Pacific" nations -- Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan and the Republic of Korea -- joined them in discovering how well they could use their combined power to defeat any adversary.
On the eve of this final skirmish, Marine Capt. Mark Sojourner discussed the battle plan with military and civilian reporters, perched on cots in a large tent, its sides rolled up to let in the meager breeze.
"At 0800 tomorrow, 1,000 Marines, mostly from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., will land," Sojourner told the assembly.
Some would storm the beach in various landing craft, he said. Helicopters would insert others farther inland, he added, where they would capture and secure the "enemy" airfield. By 10:30 a.m., he projected, the two elements would link up, completing the sweep of the island and "driving the opposing forces out."
Marine tactics ensure mission accomplishment, added Marine Capt. Scott Lopez, an 11th MEU spokesman. Air-ground task forces, complemented by Navy sealift, maximize combat power, Lopez said. The Marines and their naval partners, he said, form a quick response team capable of accomplishing a variety of global missions.
The 11th MEU arrived in the central Pacific Ocean in time for the beginning of Rimpac '96, May 22. Marines at Kaneohe Bay, on the island of Oahu, also participated in the exercise, as did Air Force units at Hickam Air Force Base. Located next door to Pearl Harbor, Hickam provided runway and flight line support for the aircraft of many countries participating in the exercise.
According to officials at Hickam, the exercise gave participating nations the opportunity to improve coordination and interoperability of forces in maritime tactical and theater operations.
On June 10, Navy fighters from the aircraft carriers USS Independence and USS Kitty Hawk launched "exercise" strike packages against Oahu's air defense team. Navy F-14, F/A-18, A-6, EA-6 and E-2 aircraft hurtled over the brilliant blue waters toward the island. However, the Hawaii team, augmented by E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, Hawaii Air National Guard F-15s and numerous other U.S. and Canadian fighters and bombers, turned back the attack.
"This was excellent training," Air Force Maj. Robin Becker, acting air defense commander for the event, told the Hickam Kukini newspaper. "It is very rare we can get this many adversary aircraft at one time."
Leading up to the Marine beach landing, naval reservists from Inshore Boat Unit 23 in Oklahoma City set up a choke point between Kauai and Niihau Island where they nabbed eight "enemy" submarines and helped "sink" three subs over a period of 10 days. Members of the unit's anti-submarine warfare unit earned their spurs in Desert Storm, Somalia and Haiti, said Operations Specialist Chief David Trahan.
Four days later, the Independence and Kitty Hawk prepared to launch strikes against the "enemy missile site" and the 87 Marines making their last stand on the Kauai coast.
A little after 5 a.m., on June 15, the opposing forces began to awaken and stretch and straggle from their tents or bunkers to gaze out at the now-calm sea.
Out there, almost but not quite hidden in a gray mist, the amphibious assault ship USS Essex sat, her deck laden with AV-8B Harrier II jets, AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships and other aircraft painted the same flat gray as the carrier -- the same flat gray as more vessels beginning to appear on the glassy waters.
Out there, the "grunts" had been up a long time and now checked and rechecked their weapons and ammo, adjusted their Kevlar helmets and flak vests, listened to sergeants and lieutenants repeat the rules of engagement and schedule of operations -- and waited.
On shore, morning appetites rose with the sun, and the opposing forces chowed down on Meals, Ready to Eat. The old salts gobbled as the greener troops and some civilians watched, then tentatively bit into ham slices or nibbled on crackers. Others wandered off to latrines and showers or headed down to the beach, where men in bunkers pointed rifles and machine guns at the still distant ships and waited -- and watched.
"They [the 11th MEU] will bring all fire to bear at different times, then bring the grunts in," Lopez said as he gathered reporters for a final, prebattle briefing. "Nobody else has this capability," he quietly boasted.
At 6 a.m., Navy fighter-bombers darted across the sky and simulated "preparing" the beach for the coming assault. A little later, the landing ship USS Harpers Ferry -- like a great whale giving birth -- spewed forth a half-dozen Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicles. For a while, the assault vehicles hovered near the mother ship and the group ashore watched -- and waited.
At 8, they waited no more. The assault vehicles began a run to the beach, Cobra gunships providing escort as more troops disembarked in their armored vehicles from the Harpers Ferry and from the smaller amphibious transport USS Cleveland. Much larger air cushioned landing craft flowed from the bellies of their mother ships to deliver light armored vehicles and Humvees to the beach.
Without hesitation, the first assault vehicles stormed ashore and pushed past the defenders to establish the beach head. The air cushioned landing craft followed, roaring ashore to offload, then hurling sand and debris as they turned and headed back to sea.
Marines ran toward defensive positions firing their weapons and diving into the sand to avoid enemy fire. Navy medical corpsmen ran beside them, treating "wounds." The medics also treated some bite victims of real sand fleas.
As in Somalia and Haiti and Bosnia, the news media were there to capture the scene on film and videotape and to interview camouflaged Marines as they hid beneath thickets or scurried to new positions under the barking orders of gunnery sergeants.
Lance Cpls. Michael Lewis and Andrew Rodecap, cooling off beneath a dense green thicket, told reporters the assault went well and didn't differ much from "what we always do."
"We're going to WestPac [the Western Pacific] from here for six months, so we're used to being out to sea and 'roughing it,'" said Lewis, his Pacific blue eyes about the only noncamouflaged aspect of the pair's temporary bivouac. He blinked, and his partner coughed lightly, as several other Marines thundered by, stirring up thick, brown dust, seeking their own shelter from the searing midmorning sun.
"Having the [news] media here was realistic," Sojourner said. "As we saw in Somalia and Haiti, the Marines need to be able to deal with reporters and photographers, because they are going to be there when we arrive." The mostly privates and lance corporals took the reporters in stride but weren't distracted from their primary mission. By 10:30 a.m., they'd secured "Pacifica" and accomplished the mission.
And then it was over. The Navy-Marine Corps assault successfully knocked out the insurgents and moved inland to link up with members of the air assault team. Within hours, the "backup" began, and for a while, the Kauai beach resembled a parking lot, then a snarling traffic jam as all streamed back to the wombs and decks of the awaiting ships.
One day after the beach landing -- four weeks after the navies and infantries of the Pacific Rim nations commenced the massive exercise -- a steady stream of cruisers, troop ships and carriers steamed down the narrow channel into Pearl Harbor.
By June 17, the victors and the vanquished had exchanged uniforms for tank tops and baggy shorts, combat boots for sandals, and commenced shore liberty. They'd earned it.