An aerial view of ships moored at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Ford Island during the Rim of the Pacific exercise on July 5, 2024. 

An aerial view of ships moored at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Ford Island during the Rim of the Pacific exercise on July 5, 2024.  (Corban Lundborg/U.S. Air Force)

At this year’s iteration of the biennial Exercise Rim of the Pacific — the world’s largest naval exercise — port security is playing a prominent role as international conflict and competition put strains on global supply chains.

At Coast Guard Base Hono ­lulu on Sand Island on Monday, the Long Beach, Calif.-based Port Security Unit 311 began setting up its operating base for the exercise. The unit, part of the Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces, has deployed across the globe. It’s one of the few Coast Guard units to have seen action in conflicts in the Middle East. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it joined an amphibious force of British Royal Marines and U.S. Navy SEALs and took control of critical port facilities.

But this is the first RIMPAC the unit has ever participated in. Its participation comes as the U.S. government sees the Indo-Pacific increasingly critical as East and South Asian countries play a growing central role in the global economy and as Washington and Beijing compete for influence and power in the region.

“Securing our ports is essential across the globe. Our ports and waterways are still fundamentally how we move commerce, how we receive goods, how we we transit goods or people,” said PSU 311’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Pat Hanley. “And for many of the countries around the globe, particularly in the Indo-Pacific area, the ports are critical strategic assets. That’s their lifeblood, how they ensure that they have everything they need to maintain commerce, economy, you know, support their people.”

The unit is made up mostly of reservists. Hanley explained that it is “designed to ramp up when asked to deploy just about anywhere in the globe to support our joint partners, whether it be Navy, Army, Air Force or international partners.”

In Hawaii the unit joins the Coast Guard’s Honolulu-­based Maritime Safety and Security Team and diving teams to train on how to keep ports open and protected from anything from natural disasters to terrorism or outright attacks from major military powers.

Cmdr. Daniel Han, commander of MSST Honolulu — an active-duty unit that is also part of the Deployable Specialized Forces — said that while he and his team haven’t regularly trained with PSU 311, “RIMPAC kind of offers that opportunity.”

MSST Honolulu also has deployed around the Pacific, training port security personnel in places like Palau and New Caledonia and pitching in after disasters, which have been as far away as Guam and as close as Maui after the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire.

“Logistically, getting our assets or people to these remote regions of the Pacific is probably our biggest challenge,” Han said. He noted that even responding to the Maui fire — which came on suddenly — was a challenge as they hastily loaded their equipment to make their way over. But sometimes they’re able to move more quickly.

“For, like, the typhoon (Mawar) over in Guam, because we were able to project that as it’s going to hit soon, we were able to pre-stage our unit with putting up people on a C-130 and pre-staging the assets out there to kind of like be able to respond real time.”

But the Coast Guard’s resources are limited. Lt. Eric Juback, the MSST’s executive officer, said, “Not only do we have things going on on the East Coast, the United States and Texas right now during a hurricane … drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, human trafficking, the Arctic when you talk about fishery violations and potential threats from Russia, and then you talk about the Pacific.”

“We are smaller than the New York City Police Department,” Juback added, “and when you talk about not having that many people, it’s very challenging to decide where those resources go, right, and how do we counter the threats that exist out here in the Pacific.”

Tensions have mounted in the Pacific, especially in the South China Sea — a critical waterway through which more than a third of all international trade travels. China considers almost the entire region its exclusive sovereign territory despite a 2016 international court ruling in favor of the Philippines that rejected almost all of Beijing’s territorial claims.

The Coast Guard has played an increasingly important role in America’s Pacific strategy as the U.S. competes with China for influence. Unlike the Navy, the Coast Guard has law enforcement authority that in some cases allows it to board and inspect vessels suspected of illegal activity on the high seas and in ports.

Some officials and analysts have expressed alarm about growing investment by Chinese companies in ports around the world, and the involvement of Chinese companies in port operations. In May, Slovakian ­-based security firm ESET alleged it found evidence of malware planted by a Chinese cybergroup known as Mustang Panda against Norwegian-, Greek-and Dutch-­controlled ships.

But it’s the war in Ukraine that has made some officials particularly concerned about port vulnerability.

When Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Black Sea became a battleground, and the Ukrainian ports became a major target for airstrikes as well as shelling and missile attacks. Ukrainian forces have begun hitting back at Russian-­controlled ports, with both sides using missiles and drones as they trade shots.

“That’s our job, to prevent that from happening to U.S. vessels, right, to our partner vessels in Japan, Tokyo, you know, or South Korea, Philippines,” Juback said. “So we have assets at all those regions right now helping build their capability to protect against that.”

But the Coasties admit that right now their resources for defending against drones are limited. They’re working with the Department of Defense — which has a larger budget and more experience — to build their capabilities.

“The emerging threat is there,” Juback said. “We bring it up all the time. We talk about it all the time. We analyze data as it comes about. And we look at how we can shape our tactics for our operators who are doing the mission every day to kind of change and decide how we’re going to address that threat.”

They’re also looking at how they can use drones of their own in ports for security or to respond to disasters or attacks.

“At this point it’s kind of in the research-and-­development phase,” Hanley said. “We may use RIMPAC as an opportunity to test some of that out and see whether that’s a capability that makes sense for port security — and if it does, how can we best leverage it.”

(c)2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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