BY BOB HOGUE – “A million dollars a day.” Lt. Commander Ron Flanders emphatically answers the question about the cost of operating the USS Ronald Reagan, while boarding the super carrier just before it steams out of Pearl Harbor.
The super carrier is in Hawaiian waters this month as the centerpiece—and sole carrier—of the biennial RIMPAC exercises. The exercise, which dates back to the Vietnam War-era in the early 1970’s, is the largest maritime event in the world with the navies of 14 nations on hand, comprising 34 different ships, over 100 aircraft, and more than 20,000 personnel.
With the Navy, Air Force, and Marines from the United States participating, along with Pacific Rim navies from Australia, Japan, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Thailand, plus European vessels from France and the Netherlands, the cost of the exercise runs into the tens of millions of dollars. It’s also estimated that the spike in military presence brings in well in excess of $40-million to Hawaii’s economy before RIMPAC finishes wraps up.
Is it worth the cost and benefit?
“It’s extremely well spent,” says Brigadier General Thomas P. Harwood III, the mobilization assistant the Commander of 13th Air Force, stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. “We have to be prepared, and this is how we prepare. This is a unique opportunity to work with a multi-national force.”
Harwood and Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Commander of the Carrier Strike Group, met out at sea with Hawaii and international media on the first day of the exercise. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel scurried in the background, as the flight deck was readied for the first round of fighter jet take-offs and landings.
“To bring forces to Hawaii is expensive for each country, and we want to make the most of it,” Rowden says. “The U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Hawaii National Guard are involved, and we get a chance to work with multi-national forces coming together in the air, and on land and sea. It’s not often that you get all the components working together in something as big as this.”
The Ronald Reagan sailed past the USS Arizona Memorial as it left Pearl Harbor, a grim reminder of the importance of readiness. Dozens of onlookers lined the Ford Island shoreline, some waving flags, to give the super carrier a proper send-off.
“We’re bringing 90,000 tons of diplomacy to this area of the Pacific,” Rowden says.
The Ronald Reagan is part of Task Force 170 that works during RIMPAC with twelve other ships and four other navies in the waters south of Oahu. Lt. Commander Mack Wafford, a 25-year veteran of the Navy by way of his hometown in Amarillo, Texas, operates flight deck control, the nerve center for flight operations, as the aircraft handling officer. His small command center sits above the flight deck, near the bridge, where he can look down at the deck or his multi-colored board that features tiny models of all the planes in his arsenal.
“This is called the Ouija board,” he says while wearing a bright yellow long sleeve shirt that says Handler. As one aircraft moves into position for takeoff, Wafford and his assistants move tiny pins, nuts, and bolts of different colors around the board.
“This is still pre-World War II technology,” he smiles, the reflection of his face mirrored in the many video screens that surround him. The Ouija board is a flashback to old operation methods and belies the use of sophisticated electronic equipment in the rest of the command center and bridge area.
On the flight deck, dozens of young flyboys sit in their cockpits, readying the F/A-18F Super Hornets, F/A-18C Hornets, E-2C Hawkeyes, and EA-6B Prowlers that are preparing for take-off.
The intensity of the first day exercise reaches its climax with the first round of flights. Lt. Commander Wafford shouts over the Reagan’s intercom “It’s time to do some international relations! We’re playing the RIMPAC games—let’s shoot off!”
The enthusiastic announcement is followed by an explosion of sight and sound, and the intense smell of exhaust fumes as one fighter jet after another is catapulted off the flight deck, jettisoning from zero to 150 miles per hour in less than three seconds. Without ear protection, the decibel level on the flight deck is enough to blow out your eardrums.
“It’s exciting every time,” says LS1 Allan Martinez of San Diego, CA.
“We show our strength and resolve, building understanding and improving operability with other nations,” says Rear Admiral Rowen.
The 22nd edition of RIMPAC has begun and runs until August 1.
Journalist Bob Hogue authored this piece for Hawaii Reporter