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U.S. Navy Picks a Full-Size Amphib for High-Profile Sinking Exercise

Marines from USS Tarawa go ashore in Kuwait, 2003 (USN)
Marines from USS Tarawa go ashore in Kuwait, 2003 (USN)

Published Jul 1, 2024 10:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

The biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise is the largest naval exercise in the world, and every edition includes a capstone "sinking exercise" targeting a decommissioned U.S. Navy warship. This year it will be an unusually substantial target: the former USS Tarawa, a full-size amphibious assault vessel. 

USS Tarawa - named for the costly Battle of Tarawa in World War II, a touchstone of Marine Corps history - was commissioned in 1976 and decommissioned in 2009. She was the first in a class of five amphibs, and she made multiple deployments to the Mideast in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom during the War on Terror. After her retirement, a group of plankowners formed a committee to operate Tarawa as the first amphib museum ship, but the effort was not successful; Tarawa was stricken from the registry in April 2024 and prepared for sinking.

USS Tarawa in her prime (USN)

USS Tarawa in layup at Pearl Harbor, 2013 (USN)

The Tarawa-class were "big deck" amphibs, designed to support helicopters (and later, jump-jet fighters). They also incorporated a well deck for four landing craft and berthing for 1,700 marines. At 40,000 dwt, the class is about the same size as China's full-size modern amphib, the 36,000 dwt Type 075. 

For a sinking exercise, a heavily-built target like Tarawa offers the opportunity for a prolonged engagement, allowing the U.S. Navy (and its partners) to practice with multiple weapons systems. "It gives us an opportunity to have a hulk that will last for hopefully a long amount of time, so we can get all of our drills through and successfully executed," Vice Adm. John Wade told Stripes.

28 partner nations are joining the exercise this year; the world's largest naval power, China, is conspicuously absent, and has been since 2016. "Every nation in the world that has interests in the Pacific and will adhere to the same values is more than welcome to participate," explained Chilean Navy Commodore Alberto Guerrero, RIMPAC's deputy commander for 2024.

In China, the selection of USS Tarawa as the RIMPAC sinking target has been perceived as a warning - or a test.

"Analysts believe that the RIMPAC exercise is clearly aimed at China, as the only country deemed as "enemy" by the US that operates a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship in the Asia-Pacific region is China," asserted state-owned opinion outlet Global Times. "Some experts also suggest that the US and its allies may be preparing for the potential scenario of the mainland using such a ship to attack the Taiwan island."