Although things may change before you reach the end of this column, at the moment I am typing these words the Rim of the Pacific 2020 international maritime exercise remains scheduled to be held in Hawaii and Southern California this summer.

With residents and visitors to Hawaii under curfew, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders, it’s hard to imagine the world’s largest international maritime exercises will take place here this summer.

In 2018, RIMPAC was conducted between the end of June and early August.

A spokesperson for the Navy’s Third Fleet confirmed that RIMPAC 2020 dates will be roughly the same which means that in three months some 25,000 military personnel from at least 25 countries are expected to converge in Hawaii for more than a month of firing rockets and mortars, launching missiles, sinking ships, flying drones, urban combat training, and amphibious landings.

Hawaii’s politicians and business community exhibit almost universal enthusiasm for RIMPAC. Welcoming military personnel, support staff, and other visitors associated with the event generates a lot of money and brings increased visibility to the state.

Ships at Pearl Harbor during RIMPAC exercises on Oahu in 2017. Is it time to halt the annual exercise?

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Once services, supplies, fuel, and transient accommodation taxes are factored in, RIMPAC infuses more than an estimated $100 million into certain sectors of Hawaii’s economy.

But at a time when residents have received orders to stay home except for essential activities, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for gatherings of no more than 10 people, the idea of hosting RIMPAC this summer borders on the absurd.

Viral Enemy

RIMPAC began in 1971 with three countries: Australia, Canada, and the United States. Today, as planners prepare for the 27th iteration, RIMPAC has grown to include more than two dozen countries from Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, and beyond.

In 2018, France, Germany, Israel, and the United Kingdom were in attendance alongside U.S. allies and regional partners South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand and others. Turkey and Ecuador were also on hand as observers (a requirement before a country can participate).

RIMPAC truly is the Olympic games of military exercises and perhaps, like the International Olympic Committee — which this week postponed the 2020 Tokyo games —  RIMPAC planners may have found it difficult to accept that their hard work and planning may be dashed by the coronavirus.

But, like the IOC, RIMPAC needs to get real and acknowledge that all of the countries that were invited to participate in this year’s RIMPAC, save for one (Tonga), have confirmed cases of COVID-19. It’s hard to imagine that the postponement or cancellation of RIMPAC is anything but a matter of time.

Even if the number of COVID-19 cases falls dramatically by June, this is not a time to invite tens of thousands of military forces for war games in Hawaii. The coronavirus has already begun to spread within the Pacific Fleet, but the Navy has announced it will stop naming affected ships.

History provides important lessons about how the movement of highly-concentrated military forces played a significant role in the spread of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic that killed at least 50 million worldwide.

Faced with a viral enemy that is bolstered by large crowds and can’t be vanquished with bullets and bombs, other military exercises in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have been scaled back or canceled. RIMPAC should do the same.

This is not a time to invite tens of thousands of military forces for war games in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the militaries of RIMPAC nations have an important contribution to make. With nearly four decades of multi-national training and “building capacity and interoperability” among RIMPAC partners, this is an opportunity to put what they have learned into practice.

RIMPAC, which is quick to emphasize the humanitarian aid and disaster relief aspects of the exercise, has spent four decades training partner nations for contingencies and rescue operations.

With the unmatched resources provided to national militaries and the capacity built over 40 years, each of these militaries can put its hard work and capabilities to work by shoring up civilian institutions such as hospitals, testing centers, and morgues that are being pushed to the breaking point.

If ever there was a time to put all those years of RIMPAC training to good use, this is it.

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