By Capt. Fred Kacher
Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 7
The 20th year of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) bilateral exercise series came to a close last week as we completed CARAT Brunei following a very successful underway phase. Spanning from initial planning conferences beginning in January all the way to our final exercise in mid-November, CARAT is the U.S. 7th Fleet’s premier naval engagement in Southeast Asia and has helped promote security and stability in the region for the past two decades.
With Destroyer Squadron 7’s shift to Southeast Asia in late 2012, the 2014 series marked the second year in a row that we led the execution of the entire CARAT series for Commander, Task Force 73 led by my boss, Rear Adm. Charlie Williams. There is an old expression that says, “being there matters,” but I would add that having a team that lives and works in the very region where CARAT takes place also matters as we build and strengthen relationships with 10 maritime nations in support of Commander, Seventh Fleet’s lines of effort. Put another way, CTF 73 and DESRON 7 are very real examples of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific Rebalance, and as we tell folks wherever we go, we are “living the Rebalance” every day.
While we build relationships, however, we are also focusing on operational proficiency and excellence as we share some of our Navy’s newest and most advanced platforms with our partners and allies. During recent CARAT exercises, for example, platforms such as the P-8A Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, the Littoral Combat Ship and the Arleigh Burke-class Guided Missile Destroyer featured prominently in places as varied as Timor Leste to Singapore. Underscoring the continuity between exercises and operations in 7th Fleet, many of the same units worked with regional navies to support multinational responses to disaster relief events over the past year, including Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the sunken South Korean Ferry Sewol and missing Malaysian Airways Flight MH-370.
Yet for those who have not participated in CARAT before, the size and breadth of the exercise series can be surprising. In fact, in the 2014 CARAT season alone, CTF 73 and DESRON 7 operated with more than 40 U.S. and international ships, embarked 12 USN ships, and led bilateral task groups totaling more than 10,000 personnel. Additionally, CARAT included Seabees, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, medical professionals, diving experts, 50 U.S. and international aircraft, U.S. Marine Corps landing forces, and more than 150 days of interaction as we planned and exercised with our partners and allies.
As we assess the solid work that’s been done in 2014, however, it’s important to look to the future. Thanks to the great performance of the ships, Sailors, and subject matter experts who support CARAT, our CARAT partners have universally expressed a desire for more engagement in the future. To that end, as we aim to make the biggest impact we can while leveraging the fleet’s resources conscientiously, we will develop an even smarter, more tactical exercise series in 2015.
Of course, one of the things we are most looking forward to is USS Fort Worth’s (LCS 3) arrival in the Asia-Pacific theater later this year. Not only will Fort Worth conduct more port visits and exercises with regional navies, including the majority of the 2015 CARAT exercises, but she has the capability to operate hull-to-hull with our Southeast Asian partners. Uniquely suited to the littorals that shape the South China Sea and similar in size to the ships that comprise the navies here, the LCS is a natural fit for this region.
During my time in Southeast Asia, I’ve come to believe that strong maritime partnerships can make a huge difference. They help us develop interoperability that we can rely on when common challenges occur. They help us learn to work together in an era where resources continue to be finite. Most profoundly, I believe building relationships helps us manage risk and prevent miscalculations at sea – because our navies know each other well.
From coordinated torpedo shoots with the Republic of Singapore Navy at sea, to amphibious assaults off the coast of Kuantan, Malaysia and Zambales, Philippines, to re-setting naval relations in Cambodia and Brunei, our team and our maritime partnerships grew markedly in 2014. Just as important, thousands of American Sailors and Marines across the fleet have become smarter, savvier operators and ambassadors through their experiences helping build maritime capacity in Southeast Asia, a region on the rise and one of the most dynamic maritime environments in the world.
CARAT is an annual, bilateral exercise series with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the armed forces of nine partner nations including, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Republic of Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor-Leste. Though not a part of CARAT, Naval Engagement Activity Vietnam is in its 5th consecutive year and focuses on similar skills as CARAT such as non-combatant professional exchanges in military medicine, search and rescue, diving and salvage and shipboard damage control.