Here are the ships the U.S. plans to sink in the Pacific this summer

While many Americans think of summer as the perfect season to hit the pool for a float, U.S. service members in the Pacific are thinking about what they’re going to sink. In live fire exercises dubbed “SINKEXs,” troops in the region have already sunk two ships from the air and the land, with one big aquatic finale expected before Labor Day.

In June, the Army tested its ability to sink ships with land-based weapons against one retired warship, the USS Cleveland, as part of Valiant Shield 2024. The amphibious transport dock broke up and sunk after being struck by a variety of ordnance, including two Precision Strike Missiles, or PrSMs. It was the first time that the missiles were used against a ship, officials said.

Also last month, a Marine AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter sank a ship-sized target as it was being towed using an AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, or JAGM.

But the real fireworks are expected to come soon during the ongoing RIMPAC exercise, the region’s largest annual war games with U.S. and Pacific partners. Officials have said the amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa — a warship second only to full-size aircraft carrier in size — is expected to be sunk in a SINKEX finale to this year’s ongoing RIMPAC exercise, which lasts until Aug. 1. 

Military exercises such as these show how the U.S. military emphasizes being ready for a range of scenarios ranging from humanitarian assistance missions to war, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.

No substitute for a SINKEX

The Navy has conducted SINKEXs, or sinking exercises, for more than a century, said retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C. What’s new about the most recent exercises is how ships are being sunk.

“In the recent past, they have been sunk by submarine torpedoes, ship-launched missiles, and gunfire,” Cancian told Task & Purpose. “Now, we are seeing ships sunk by land-based anti-ship missiles. The purpose is twofold: to exercise the system and ensure that it works and to send the message to other countries (China) that the United States has these capabilities.”

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The Army is developing an anti-ship seeker for the PrSM even though the missile was initially envisioned as a replacement for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which is designed to hit land targets only, Cancian said. Separately, the Navy has adapted its Standard Missile, or SM-6 to attack ships.

“The reason for both is the growing threat from the Chinese navy (PLAN) and the need to adapt every weapon for that fight,” Cancian said.

The PrSM, which has a range of more than 400 kilometers, is one of the weapons systems the Army has or will have soon that can sink ships from land, said Jonathan Riley, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Pacific. During this year’s Valiant Shield exercise, the PrSMs along with other weapons hit a moving maritime target.

The exercise comes as the U.S. military as a whole is looking for ways to poke holes in China’s Anti Access Area Denial, or A2/AD network, a series of seniors and weapons that are designed to make it very dangerous for any U.S. ships, planes, and troops to operate in and around Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines.

With the PrSM and other weapons, the Army expects to be able to disrupt the network of China’s A2/AD systems, said Brig. Gen. Jeffery VanAntwerp, who oversees operations, plans, and training for U.S. Army Pacific.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has designed its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network to defeat U.S. air and maritime forces,” VanAntwerp told Task & Purpose. “It’s not designed to find, fix, and finish distributed, mobile, networked, reloadable land forces like those recently demonstrated in Valiant Shield 24 and other exercises. With capabilities like the PrSM and the Mid-Range Capability (MRC), the Army is providing a critical contribution to the defense of our allies and partners.”

Not just for the Navy

The Marine Corps’ June 26 live-fire test of the JGAM is the latest example of how the Corps is expanding its anti-ship capabilities as part of its Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept, or EABO, which calls for small numbers of Marines to operate from temporary bases, such as remote Pacific islands, to strike enemy ships.

The JAGM is also intended to replace the Marine Corps’ TOW, Hellfire, and Maverick missiles, Cancian said.

“Because of JAGM’s high cost, however, I suspect that TOW and Hellfire will be around for a long time,” Cancian said.

Meanwhile, the Tarawa will be one of the larger vessels that has been sunk in recent years, so it will provide the U.S. military and partner nations with an opportunity to expend a lot of ordnance during RIMPAC, said retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, a strategist and senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute a think tank based in Indianapolis.

“She’s going to take a lot of damage, and they are going to get a chance to test a lot of different systems on her before she goes down,” Hendrix told Task & Purpose. “It’s been a while since we’ve done something this big. We’ve done LPDs [amphibious transport docks] in the past, but I’m not sure that we’ve done anything like this. To have a light amphibious carrier, that’s a bigger deal.”

While the U.S. military typically sinks at least one ship as part of RIMPAC, the most recent sinking exercises underscore that the Defense Department views China as its top potential adversary, Hendrix said.

“It is very clear to me that we are focused more on a Pacific war and the potential of a war in the Pacific – specifically China v. Taiwan or other types of contingencies, to include the Philippines,” Hendrix said. “I think you will see more SINKEXs.”

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Jeff Schogol

Senior Pentagon Reporter

Jeff Schogol is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. He reports on both the Defense Department as a whole as well as individual services, covering a variety of topics that include personnel, policy, military justice, deployments, and technology. His apartment in Alexandria, Va., has served as the Task & Purpose Pentagon bureau since the pandemic first struck in March 2020. The dwelling is now known as Forward Operating Base Schogol.

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