Like the United States, Southeast Asia is a region whose destiny will be shaped by the seas that surround it. In a very real way, a Thai fisherman, an international businessman from Kuala Lumpur, a dockworker in the port of Los Angeles, and a young American naval officer deployed to Singapore are all bound together: They’re among the hundreds of millions who work, live, and operate along the waterways of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, it represents one of the most vibrant maritime regions in the world. With fast-growing economies and 600 million people producing more than $2 trillion in goods and services annually, the area is also home to some of the world’s busiest ports and trade routes, through which half of all global trade passes.
So while some may be more familiar with the capabilities of our partners to the north such as Japan and South Korea, the lesser-known nations of Southeast Asia feature dynamic maritime economies and professional, well-equipped navies. Add in the presence of two U.S. treaty allies (Thailand and the Philippines), the importance of the South China Sea, the multilateral forum provided by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the fact that economic, military, and population growth are all trending up, and it’s easy to see why Southeast Asia is viewed as a region that matters and an area in which we need to be engaged.
A Long History
These facts are not lost on senior civil and military leadership. The United States is a Pacific nation, and our rebalance back to the Pacific underscores the long-standing U.S. Navy presence there. In fact, our Navy has long provided a source of continuity in this vast maritime region, deterring conflict and protecting vital sea lines of communication that connect the Asia-Pacific to the global economy. Put another way, the United States, along with our friends and allies, has historically underwritten the security and stability of the Pacific in ways that have directly contributed to the remarkable rise in prosperity that has followed. While we use the terms “rebalance” or “pivot,” indeed, we never left.
Our commitment to the Western Pacific, and Southeast Asia in particular, is not a recent development. Ships of the Asiatic Fleet—the precursor to the U.S. 7th Fleet—began to patrol East Asian waters in 1902, confronting many of the same maritime security challenges (including piracy, smuggling, and natural disasters) as modern forces do today. Before that, the East India Squadron (1835–1868) and the Asiatic Squadron (1868–1902) performed these duties for much of the 19th century. And in 2013, the 7th Fleet celebrated the 70th anniversary of its establishment during World War II when the U.S. role in the region was essential to achieving victory in the Pacific Theater.
Before It’s An Emergency
But a proud legacy isn’t enough. Special-operations forces (SOF) leadership, representing one of our most elite and agile military communities, often reminds us that “competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.” Likewise, the relationships and ability to operate with fellow navies in the region will not be there when we need them if we have not invested in these competencies ahead of time. In the Southeast Asia region, these lines of effort are among the principal responsibilities of CTF-73/Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific. Located near a strategic maritime crossroads in Singapore at the gateway to the Strait of Malacca, more than 3,000 miles southwest of U.S. naval bases in Japan, the command has an ideal geographic vantage point in the Asia-Pacific and more specifically, for our engagement in Southeast Asia.
Designed to further relationships and enhance interoperability between the United States and the region’s emerging maritime powers, CTF-73’s security-cooperation activities range from at-sea exercises, port visits, and defense exhibitions to smaller, tailored subject-matter expert exchanges, as well as staff talks up to the highest levels. These activities lay the groundwork for capacity building, capability development, greater information sharing, and increased interoperability among U.S. allies and partners. This enhances both the United States’ and our partner nations’ ability to respond to real-world challenges and contingencies.
In Southeast Asia, these challenges span a wide range of operations. For example, natural disasters like the tsunamis that impacted Indonesia and Thailand over the past decade and the recent super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines shape the nature of life in the Asia-Pacific. When called to respond, good intentions won’t be enough. We need the relationships as well as the right skills to apply our capabilities successfully. Further, these de facto “Phase 0” efforts are essential building blocks of the Navy’s forward presence in the Asia-Pacific, and more specifically, Southeast Asia.
Recently, CTF-73 gained two important assets to support these vital efforts. First, Destroyer Squadron Seven was tapped to head the execution of theater-security cooperation efforts in addition to executing operational control in the region over the USS Freedom (LCS-1) and the littoral combat ships that will follow. Second, between April and November 2013, the Freedom conducted her first deployment in Southeast Asia and enhanced the Navy’s forward presence by working extensively with the region’s navies. Optimally sized, fast, and designed with a shallow draft, the LCS has been a natural asset, going pierside to places like Kuantan, Malaysia—where larger U.S. ship classes simply can’t go—and operating well alongside the small but capable ships that are the hallmarks of many navies in Southeast Asia.
CARAT Exercise Series
Armed with a new team and new ship, CTF-73 conducts the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series with nine partner navies across South and Southeast Asia. CARAT represents the centerpiece of our Navy’s engagements with partners in the region. When it concluded, CARAT 2013 encompassed 137 days, 54 ships, 3 submarines, 33 aircraft, and more than 14,000 personnel, with the majority of participation coming not from the United States but nine partner navies.
When founded in 1995, CARAT featured bilateral maritime exercises with six nations: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Expansion began in 2010 when Cambodia joined, and that same year, Vietnam began participating through naval-engagement activities with the U.S. Navy. In 2011, participation by Bangladesh marked a westward expansion to South Asia and two years later, Timor-Leste became the newest participant.
One of the integral design features of CARAT is that each phase is tailored based on factors such as counterparts’ current training requirements, capabilities, and available assets. In this sense, no two CARAT phases are alike. For each participating nation, CARAT involves a comprehensive and collaborative process from planning to execution, culminating in a five- to ten-day exercise at sea and ashore that fits both the partner navy’s and the U.S. Navy’s training needs while reinforcing the relationship between the two nations.
Of course, at its core CARAT remains a maritime exercise designed to address shared security concerns, develop interoperability, and build capacity in areas of common interest. Depending on U.S. and partner-nation objectives, the multi-day sea phase offers opportunities to flex both low-end and high-end capabilities: everything from formation steaming, flaghoist drills, search-and-rescue evolutions, and gunnery exercises, to coordinated antisubmarine warfare (ASW), missile engagements, and amphibious landings.
Ashore, events can include subject-matter expert exchanges, military law symposia, humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief (HA/DR) training, and public outreach in the form of community-service projects, band concerts, and sporting events. Many phases involve diving and salvage, explosive-ordnance disposal, jungle warfare, and amphibious assault—all highly prized skills for much of the region. For many U.S. sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, CARAT may be their first in-depth visit to a Southeast Asian country, providing the opportunity to connect with maritime peers from other nations. This is another crucial benefit of this exercise series as we build a new generation of culturally adept leaders who understand Southeast Asia.
Along with its sheer scale and breadth of skills, the variety of operations U.S. Navy participants encounter is also impressive. CARAT 2013, which began in May and continued through November, offers many examples. Several phases emphasized training in maritime-security operations to counter seaborne terrorism, smuggling, piracy, and illegal fishing. CARAT Philippines tested the National Coast Watch System, a network of sensors deployed along vital maritime choke points to enhance maritime domain awareness.
Humanitarian-assistance and disaster-response events were also in high demand. For example, in light of the tsunami that struck Phuket in 2012, CARAT Thailand focused on amphibious-landing events with both combat and disaster-relief applications. Building HA/DR competencies in particular serves as a common focal point and gateway to multilateral cooperation since countries realize that working together with their neighbors in the region is often the best way to deal with the “borderless” impact of natural and humanitarian disasters.
The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard units participating in CARAT are sourced globally and represent many warfighting capabilities deployed to the Asia-Pacific. Most Navy ships in CARAT are 7th Fleet-deploying units from Japan, the West Coast, and Hawaii. Similarly, last year’s exercises included Marines embarked on board the USS Tortuga (LSD-46) from Okinawa and Hawaii. Some units are based well outside the region. P-3C aircraft assigned to CARAT routinely deploy from Atsugi, Japan, with crews based in Jacksonville, Florida. And it is not uncommon to find Seabees from California, Louisiana, or Guam, not to mention corpsmen, divers, explosive-ordnance disposal technicians, and riverine squadrons from as far as Navy Expeditionary Combat Command in Little Creek, Virginia. CARAT is truly an exercise series encompassing the best our Navy has to offer worldwide.
Over the past two decades, the quality of CARAT has continued to trend upward, building on previous gains in exercise complexity, unit-level proficiency, and navy-to-navy interoperability. Select at-sea phases feel remarkably similar to the most challenging U.S. Navy fleet training exercises we’ve experienced off the coast of Norfolk or San Diego. CARAT Singapore, for example, included four live-firing events, six live-ASW events, and a five-day sea phase that culminated in a very challenging tactical free-play scenario.
As our young leaders hone their tactical edge through this series, they are also working with the junior officers of our partner nations, some of whom will no doubt rise to lead their navies. Just as our military’s war colleges have long been credited with positively influencing the international officers who have studied there, we believe that these CARAT interactions at sea and ashore will have similar impact on the future chiefs of navies and commanding officers who are participating in today’s exercises as junior officers.
Consistent with the Asia-Pacific rebalance, future CARATs offer new opportunities to expand the series by potentially making select phases multilateral or incorporating additional government agencies or maritime elements from our partners. This expansion and increased complexity of operations would provide additional confidence-building measures and further develop interoperability among regional navies that may not work together routinely.
While CARAT is a series of bilateral engagements between the United States and individual nations, Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), co-hosted with the Republic of Singapore Navy, is the U.S. Navy’s premier multilateral maritime-security exercise in Southeast Asia. In 2013, officers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States participated in an integrated watchfloor, tracking vessels of interest in a multilateral maritime-interdiction scenario across several regional locations.
At sea, various U.S. ships served as simulated vessels of interest and were tracked by watchstanders on land, at sea, and in the air. Shore-based radars and maritime-patrol aircraft from participating nations passed information to the multinational watchfloor in Singapore, where officers from the various countries developed robust boarding plans. On the U.S. side, the Freedom was the most prominent U.S. Navy participant, serving both as a vessel of interest and also conducting several boarding events on partner-nation ships with its embarked 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats and visit, board, search, and seizure teams that are part of the LCS surface warfare mission package.
While boardings are currently the “kinetic” aspect of the exercise, the progression of SEACAT from a basic communications event started in 2002 to a complex, maritime-domain-awareness exercise is even more important. In an area where our toughest challenges will likely demand a regional approach and regional solutions, the multilateral relationships developed among the seven nations participating will have a long-term impact long after the details of this year’s tactical scenario fade from memory.
As we have seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Freedom’s participation in this year’s SEACAT served as another game-changer. With the Freedom as a dedicated asset, the ship greatly expanded the ability of CTF-73 and DESRON 7 to control the development of the exercise. As more LCSs rotationally deploy to Southeast Asia and participating nations expand their interservice involvement, we expect SEACAT’s impact and profile to continue to grow, a fitting trend for an area with the most highly traveled—and arguably most critical—waterways in the world. Further, with longer rotational deployments and more frequent participation in the CARAT series, our partners will see both a greater consistency in ship type during the exercises and more familiar American faces as these ships become established in the region.
As CARAT and SEACAT evolve, we are confident they will remain credible venues to address shared security concerns and to reinforce positive relationships in Southeast Asia. They are also a superb vehicle to enhance interoperability in support of potential combined operations with U.S. allies and partners.
During his recent visit to Malaysia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel invoked the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his fourth and final inaugural on 20 January 1945: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far far away. . . We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”
Secretary Hagel added, “The world’s seven billion people are being brought closer together than ever before in human history, and we will add two billion people to the face of the earth in the next 25 years. Together, we have the opportunity to forge a secure, prosperous and inclusive future. The decisions we make today will help determine how that future unfolds in what will undoubtedly be a Pacific century.”
So too will the relationships we forge and the competencies we build affect the future Southeast Asia. Looking to our next generation of leaders should give us hope, for they at an earlier age and in greater numbers appreciate the importance of the work ahead. They are leaders like Lieutenant Adam Cohen, surface operations at DESRON 7 who reflected, “I’ve deployed to the Gulf on a destroyer, stood watch on oil platforms off Iraq, but I’ve never had a better opportunity to work and learn from other navies than in Southeast Asia. The work we are doing out here is making a difference.”