Sailing in the South China Sea at night is like gazing up at the stars in America’s heartland — hundreds of twinkling lights are spread across the horizon as far as the eye can see. When the sun rises and those seemingly distant lights turn into massive tankers, warships, fishing fleets and lighthouses, the magnitude of life at sea sets in quickly.
As commanding officer of the forward-deployed destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), I’ve had the privilege to lead a crew of more than 300 of the Navy’s finest Sailors. During each of our patrols, the one constant, the one unchanging goal in an increasingly crowded maritime environment, is a focus on maintaining peace and stability in the region. My junior officers and Sailors know firsthand the challenges in achieving this goal while transiting congested waterways through fleets of small fishing boats and hundreds of super large tankers and cargo ships. As we continue to operate in the busy waters of Southeast Asia, what contributes to our safe operations is our attention to detail, adherence to international maritime rules and norms, and, of course, practice and training.
In fact, we just left the Philippines after a weeklong training opportunity with our Philippine Navy and Marine Corps counterparts during the 2014 Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series. The Philippine Navy has partnered with the U.S. Navy since CARAT began in 1995, and the at-sea phase of this year’s exercise was more technical and complex than ever before. From gun shoots, to helicopter operations, to small boat transfers, to operating our ships in close formation, what looks simple is actually much more complex in execution.
What makes CARAT so important is the opportunity it provides to enhance our ability to work together as partners. With so many similarities between the U.S. Navy and the Philippine Navy, there are also many differences, and it is these exercises that help bring us closer together. As an example, the Philippine AW109 Power helicopter landed on board John S. McCain, marking the first time ever their newly-acquired aircraft landed on a foreign warship. The coordination to make this happen is important to recognize not only because of the inherent challenge in landing helicopters, but because of the capability the event demonstrates for both nations. From determining a common and compatible way to talk to each other over a radio, to conducting deck landing qualifications, which essentially means that we now know how to land AW109 helicopters on U.S. Navy destroyers, this simple, yet critical, helicopter landing exercise is truly an essential building block for future operations. The AW109 landing validated our combined readiness and proved we are ready, at a moment’s notice, to respond together quickly to the next manmade or natural disaster, which will inevitably require the search and rescue capabilities of shipboard helicopters.
Even with all the great operations that were a part of this exercise, what I will remember most about CARAT is the human interaction. Personally, with 23 Sailors of Philippine nationality or descent as part of the crew, it was powerful to see the over-pouring of pride as they brought their families aboard Big Bad John for tours and other events. The pride I saw both in the eyes of my Sailors and the faces of their families is a memory I will not soon forget.
Professionally, the opportunity to embark Philippine naval officers and enlisted Sailors on board John S. McCain over the past few days, I believe, will continue to strengthen what is already a relationship built on a shared past. We stood together on the bridge, demonstrating our own ship operations, and at the same time listened and observed how the Philippine Navy works as a team to operate their warships. While ashore, the crew of Big Bad John competed against their counterparts in athletic competitions, and learned about Philippine culture through participation in various community service events and exploring the amazing Subic Bay area.
The U.S.-Philippines security treaty is the oldest in Asia and exercises like CARAT are an affirmation of our country’s commitment to the region and to our friends. With natural disasters such as Typhoon Yolanda still fresh on all of our minds, it is even more important for us to remember how powerful and important these exercises can be in strengthening the personal relationship between our two nations. It is these relationships that lead to better interoperability and support our ability to effectively respond to the next crisis. I am proud of my crew for the effort given to make this year’s CARAT a success, and I am confident the lessons both our navies took away will ensure we are ready when called upon.
In its 20th year, CARAT is an annual bilateral exercise series with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the armed forces of nine partner nations.