Cobra Gold

 Eexercise Cobra Gold 2013 – number of firsts

Byline: Gordon Arthur / Thailand

In the distance through the tropical haze, large Thai and US naval vessels could be seen in the Gulf of Thailand. Suddenly the morning calm was punctuated by a huge underwater explosion that sent a plume of water hundreds of feet into the air. The explosive charge had been set off by Royal Thai Navy SEALs. While United States Marine Corps (USMC) helicopters flitted above, two lines of Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) that had disembarked from the naval vessels formed up and began their run into the beach.

The two formations, one comprised of Thai vehicles and the other American, raced through the azure waters towards the golden sands of Hat Yao Beach near Sattahip. Very soon the lumbering AAVs were sprinting ashore blowing geysers of water from their water jets. Sweeping to a sudden halt, they lowered their rear ramps to disgorge well-armed and fierce-looking passengers. The marines from the two nations swiftly commenced their assault, which was punctuated by well-aimed bursts of small-arms fire and rapid movement. At the same time, a USMC company of rubber raiding craft lightly touched down on the beach to lend support on the right flank. Before long the raid was over, the objective had been taken and the insurgents were dead or captured.

This was not a real combat operation taking place in one of Asia’s trouble spots…but it could have been. Instead this was the opening gambit in Exercise Cobra Gold 2013, which took place as usual in the Kingdom of Thailand. Cobra Gold is Asia-Pacific’s largest annual multilateral exercise, and this year it took place from 11-21 February in a number of locations across Thailand. The exercise’s 32nd iteration boasted some 12,600 participants, including 8,983 from the USA and 3,288 from Thailand. Other players making up the seven participating nations were Indonesia (x69 personnel), Japan (x74), Malaysia (x65), Singapore (x42) and South Korea (x72).

Specific Cobra Gold field training events included the aforementioned amphibious assault; helicopter raid; Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO); small boat raid; jungle warfare training; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) training; and Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX). The NEO was on a fairly large scale, with four CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters of the USMC successfully evacuating some 177 Japanese, Thai and US role-players from a sports stadium on the outskirts of the resort city of Pattaya. The lead unit in this operation was Combat Logistics Battalion 31 (CLB-31) of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), such evacuations being one of their core skill sets. This NEO, also doubling as a Transportation of Japanese Nationals Overseas (TJNO) exercise, is a major point of participation for Japan every year. Considering the frequency of major natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes or typhoons in the Asia-Pacific region, these are useful skills to rehearse.

Other personnel were involved in several engineering and medical civic action programmes (ENCAP/MEDCAP) such as school-building construction. There were also a senior-leader seminar and multilateral staff planning exercise. The latter focussed on a United Nations-authorised peace enforcement mission that required the protection of civilians and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR).

Cobra Gold marked the maiden deployment of the modernised UH-1Y Venom helicopter of the USMC to Thailand, though it was its second regional deployment overall. The 31st MEU, which is forward-deployed in Okinawa, contributed sizeably to the exercise with its personnel, vehicles and aircraft assets. This included newly received LAV-25A2 armoured vehicles journeying to Thailand for the first time.

Some 26 Thai aircraft participated in Exercise Cobra Gold, while the USA provided 68 craft. Many of the latter belonged to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced) (HMM-262), which is the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) of the 31st MEU. The unit’s craft were embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6). The USMC also despatched VMFA(AW)-224 from its home base of MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. This squadron of F/A-18D Hornets with four supporting KC-130s was based at Korat approximately 250km northeast of Bangkok.

Most notable of all, however, was the MV-22B Osprey’s first foray to an Asian regional exercise. Via a stopover at Clark Airbase in the Philippines, a total of six MV-22Bs from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (VMM-265) flew from MCAS Futenma in Okinawa all the way to Thailand. The journey involved mid-air refuelling and one member of the squadron described the flight to Thailand as “uneventful”. In the exercise, the Ospreys did not join the normal roster of activities but, rather, crews took the opportunity to familiarise themselves and their aircraft with air operations in Thailand.

Cobra Gold 2013 was marred by the loss of a USMC CH-46E on 20 February in mountainous terrain in Phitsanulok Province in central Thailand. Described by Colonel John Merna, the 31st MEU commander, as a “hard landing”, the accident left four crewmen injured. Fortunately there were no fatalities, but the craft was written off when fire engulfed the aircraft after the emergency landing.

Certainly, the presence of the MV-22B generated the most interest. Col Merna said the innovative craft would be joining the 31st MEU “soon”. This is likely to be in the summer when the normal rotation of MEU units takes place. The USMC finds itself in an intriguing position concerning the deployment of the Osprey. The innovative Osprey faces strong opposition from many in Japan who consider it to have an unsafe flying record. At the same time, the ageing fleet of CH-46Es represents a safety issue too. Which of the two is safer is an interesting question. Certainly the Sea Knight has a good record, but the type is now nearly 50 years old. However, as the long flight to Thailand proved, the Osprey will bring new capabilities to the 31st MEU. It flies twice as fast, carries nearly three times the payload, and has four times the range of a Sea Knight.

This year’s event featured some notable firsts. Myanmar participated as a Combined Observer Liaison Team (COLT) member for the first time, reflecting a degree of rapprochement with this former pariah state. Countries like the USA have been encouraging Myanmar to continue along a path of reform. However, possessing COLT status did not entitle Myanmar to observe all exercise events. It was not permitted to attend the CALFEX, for example. Even Cambodia, which is engaged in a border standoff with Thailand, was invited as a COLT participant. In the same category is New Zealand, which is coming in from the cold after a frosty 30-year relation with the US military owing to its strident nuclear-free stance.

Relations between Thailand and the USA are themselves of interest. The two countries have long-standing military ties and cooperation occurs on a regular basis. Indeed Thailand was designated a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) in 2003. However, Thailand has also seen fit to pursue military diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The navy, for instance, has a number of China-manufactured vessels up to frigate size in service. The country is also pursuing close technical cooperation with China in developing new rocket and missile technologies.

Thai troubles
Security issues cast the slightest of shadows when the Thai government declared that Al-Qaeda members were infiltrating Thailand in readiness for an attack during the multinational event. Extra security measures were implemented at the US Consulate in Chiang Mai but in the end the threat proved hollow. However, another event occurred in the south of Thailand that was very significant. It is well known that the three southernmost provinces have been plagued by a violent campaign of Islamic extremism that reignited nine years ago. More than 5,500 people have been killed since 2004, typically in almost daily bomb and gun attacks. Today nearly 70,000 security personnel are deployed in a region containing 1.7 million people.

On 13 February, an unprecedentedly large group of up to 60 insurgents assaulted a Royal Thai Navy (RTN) base in Narithiwat in the south. Intelligence sources had learnt of the impending night attack and the garrison was on full alert. Security measures such as Claymore mines decimated the assault and 16 rebels were killed in the fierce hour-long battle. This flare-up was among the worst in the history of the conflict, demonstrating that insurgents have become more daring. Just three days earlier, five soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Yala Province. Thai governments have seemed powerless to come up with any effective strategy in dealing with the unrest to date, and some critics say a state of emergency in the worst-affected regions gives the military carte blanche to commit human rights abuses.

On 24 February, soon after Cobra Gold drew to a close for another year, there was a landmark announcement by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of a first peace deal with a Muslim insurgent group in the south. The rebel group is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, which translates as ‘National Revolutionary Front’), and the two parties signed a “general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace”. The BRN is just one of several shadowy insurgent groups operating in the south of Thailand, and it is unclear whether other groups will follow this lead. One problem is that exiled leaders outside the territory do not have full control over their younger and often more violent members in southern Thailand. Furthermore, the insurgent movement does not have clearly stated aims.

It seems Thailand has taken a leaf out of the Philippines’ book in opting for a third party to mediate in its thorny internal dispute. As with current Government of the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GPH-MILF) peace talks, Malaysia appears willing to perform as a facilitator for its northern neighbour as well. The Thai prime minister’s upcoming visit to Malaysia for annual talks is set to include the possibility of Malaysia hosting future negotiations between the Thai government and militants. “We need Malaysia’s help because some insurgents are not based in Thailand, so Malaysia will facilitate by finding out who is involved and who is ready to talk,” Thailand’s National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr said. However, this news should be greeted with caution because, if the Philippine experience is anything to go by, the ‘peace process’ can drag on for decades.

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