By Capt. H. B. Le
Commodore Destroyer Squadron 7
The 21st year of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) bilateral exercise series ended Nov. 20 following the successful completion of CARAT Cambodia.
Consisting of subject matter exchanges and events, training symposia and at-sea serials, CARAT is the U.S. 7th Fleet’s premier naval engagement in South and Southeast Asia and has helped promote security and stability in the region for more than two decades. CARAT countries include Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor Leste.
2015 was the third consecutive year that Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7 led the planning and execution of the entire CARAT series on behalf of Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Adm. Charlie Williams. This year was particularly unique as I was able to participate in or lead the execution of all nine CARAT exercises as the Deputy Commodore or Commodore.
DESRON 7’s role in CARAT exercises spans the entire year with initial planning conferences beginning as early as January. Over the next several months, schedules are modified and final planning conferences are held to ensure both countries participating in the exercise maximize the training opportunities, both ashore and at sea, that each exercise presents. Once the final planning conferences are completed, focus shifts to the execution phase of the exercise.
The training scenarios in each CARAT are unique, but the exercises share the same objective: building and strengthening relationships and enhancing interoperability. We meet this objective by training together, operating together and perhaps most importantly learning from one another. The strength of the relationships we build and maintain is important so that when our countries call on us to work together during a crisis we can do so efficiently and effectively.
Some of the more important CARAT training events we conduct at sea include joint flight deck operations, formation steaming and maneuvering tactics, search and rescue operations, visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations and gunnery exercises. Not all of these events happen during each and every CARAT exercise, but we work hard to ensure we’re able to emphasize the events that are most mutually beneficial.
For example in our latest exercise in Cambodia, the Royal Cambodian Navy (RCN) desired more in-depth training on small boat operations, including VBSS. To accommodate for this we scheduled two days of in-port training, where shipboard maneuvering, defensive positioning and weapons tactics were discussed and practiced. Later in the week, a simulated boarding took place, as members of a U.S. Navy VBSS team boarded the RCN’s P46C 1141, giving RCN sailors the opportunity to observe and demonstrate the training they had learned previously in the week.
As a Surface Warfare Officer, I have to admit that the sea phase portion of CARAT is of particular interest to me. I love going to sea with our partner navies and conducting realistic training scenarios, but a large part of CARAT happens during the shore phase. Professional symposia from military medicine to military international law, force protection and harbor defense training, community service (COMSERV) events and performances by the 7th Fleet’s rock band “Orient Express” all contribute to the relationship-building we strive to achieve during CARAT. While I always enjoy going to sea, I view CARAT as more than just a naval warfare exercise. It’s a means to connect with the community and deepen relationships on a personal as well as professional level.
This year’s CARAT exercises featured a diverse collection of U.S. Navy platforms. The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, Los Angeles-class attack submarine, amphibious dock landing ship, as well as P-3C Orion and P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft all played prominent roles during exercises from Bangladesh to Singapore. These assets, and many more, help to achieve operational proficiency with our partner navies and demonstrate our commitment to bringing our Navy’s most advanced platforms to the region.
Perhaps the most exciting addition to CARAT 2015 was USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), which made its debut in CARAT Philippines in June. The exercise with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) focused on combined operations at sea and maritime domain awareness, but the most rewarding portion of the exercise was watching Fort Worth operate hull-to-hull with the Philippine Navy.
Similar in size to the ships that comprise the Philippine Navy, and other navies in the region, Fort Worth demonstrated that LCS is a natural fit for Southeast Asia operations. Less imposing than a destroyer, and able to operate closer to shore and in more remote areas than ships with deeper drafts, Fort Worth displayed the tactical capabilities necessary for contingency operations in South and Southeast Asia.
As we look to the future and CARAT 2016, our objective is to take a highly successful exercise and make it more complex, more sophisticated and more beneficial to our partner navies. While CARAT has been traditionally bilateral in nature, there are plans underway to evolve segments of the exercise series into multilateral initiatives beginning in 2016. While our goal is to increase cooperative maritime security strategies with regional partners, we’ll continue to be mindful of the individual bilateral training requirements of each partner nation.
During my time at DESRON 7, I’ve seen more vividly than ever the importance of strong maritime partnerships in Southeast Asia. As we know, real-world challenges in this dynamic maritime region often require a multinational response—the success of which depends in large part on the maturity of relationships. Our new multilateral approach to CARAT will take those partnerships to the next level.
The operations we took part in with our CARAT partners in 2015 helped us develop interoperability that we can lean on when regional contingencies arise. The relationships we continue to build upon help us learn to work together effectively in times of crisis, when time is of the essence and teamwork is needed most. I believe that what we do during CARAT exercises, from joint amphibious assaults in Thailand to bilateral flight operations in Indonesia, make our Sailors and Marines better operators and better equipped to operate jointly with our partner navies. I am proud of what we have accomplished during CARAT 2015 and look forward to enhancing existing relationships and building new ones in 2016.