07/15/2012 03:22 EDT | Updated 09/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian Forces at forefront of massive Pacific maritime exercise

OTTAWA - Canadian military leaders are taking up key command positions at the world's biggest maritime exercise for the first time in 40 years.

The Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, six week-long exercise has been taking place every two years since 1974. Twenty-two countries are now engaged around the Hawaiian Islands in all sorts of military simulations — from amphibious landings, to diving operations and vessel boardings at sea, and some live-fire exercises.

Normally, the American military occupies the top posts in the exercise. But this year, Canadians are in some key commands — the first time non-Americans have been given the opportunity.

Rear-Admiral Ron Lloyd is the deputy commander of the combined task force — basically, the RIMPAC exercise writ large. Brigadier-General Michael Hood is the commander of the air component, and Commodore Peter Ellis is heading up the amphibious task group led by the USS Essex.

"I think it really is a recognition of Canada's ability. We have performed in a leadership role in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Haiti," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in an interview.

More than 1,400 Canadian sailors, air personnel and soldiers are taking part in the exercise alongside forces from such countries as Russia, Australia and Japan. Canadian ships, a diving unit, several aircraft and an infantry company are participating.

MacKay was headed Sunday to the area, where he will board the HMCS Algonquin.

"They love this type of training exercise just as they love deploying," MacKay said of the Canadian Forces.

"This is what they train for. This is a chance to test themselves vis-a-vis others, and in very real-time scenarios. This is as close as it gets to the real thing."

MacKay noted that the exercise is a benefit to Canada because of the ties it reinforces in the Pacific rim area. Canada is hoping to take part in the new Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade zone incorporating countries on either side of the Pacific.

"Much of the world's trade now is being done on the water, and it's being done in the Asia-Pacific region," said MacKay.

"There are concerns about issues such as piracy. The movement of commercial traffic is something Canada has to be concerned about, and strengthening and deepening our ties in the region naturally follows."