Kelvin Wong, HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly
5 May 2015
SINGAPORE – Multinational military engagement activities and co-operation between Asia-Pacific countries look set for significant growth within the next two years, a senior U.S. Navy (USN) official told IHS Jane's aboard USS Blue Ridge on 4 May.
Blue Ridge , which is the flagship of the USN's 7th Fleet, docked at Singapore's Changi Naval Base on 30 April, bringing ashore fleet commander Vice Admiral Robert Thomas and his command staff, as well as the embarked Helicopter Squadron 12 and marines from Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team Pacific.
Captain Ronald Oswald, Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) Officer at 7th Fleet, observed that there have been tangible efforts by stakeholders in Southeast Asia as well as the wider Asia-Pacific region to expand on the scale and scope of multilateral exercises.
"Historically, most of our exercises have been bilateral; [however] we are also exploring doing more multilateral exercises with our counterparts," said Capt Oswald. "I think you'll see a number of [expanded] events beginning next year that bring additional partners into previously bilateral exercises."
He remains positive that regional stakeholders will be able to rise above known political challenges, such as the enduring suspicion that has precluded any form of formal security alliances between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He noted the emergence of mechanisms such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) – which calls for high-level discussions between the defence ministers of ASEAN member countries – and the expanded ADMM+, which brings together defence ministers from eight extra-regional countries: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.
"Looking back at [the region], even a couple of years ago things were different, but recent discussions with our partners about trilateral and multilateral exercises have been very positive," said Capt Oswald, who observed that regional crises such as natural disasters, maritime safety incidents and other security challenges have lent impetus to these considerations.
"Multinational exercises help to establish protocols and ways to operate more effectively ahead of time," he added. "When those [contingencies] happen then working together and sharing information is that much easier, people know how to plug in and integrate into SAR (search and rescue) or HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) efforts seamlessly."
Capt Oswald also hinted at the potential of growth for existing programmes such as the annual 'Co-operation Afloat Readiness and Training' ('CARAT') exercises – a series of bilateral naval training manoeuvres conducted by 7th Fleet's Task Force 73 in Southeast Asia since 1995 involving several ASEAN members and South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste – which seek to improve their respective interoperability with the USN.
However, 'CARAT' exercises currently vary in scope and complexity depending on the existing capabilities of the host country. For example, 'CARAT' Singapore in July 2014 featured a five-day joint training exercise comprising air defence, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions, as well as maritime air operations, and involved a total of two submarines, five naval helicopters, six ships, nine fixed-wing aircraft, and 1,400 personnel from both countries. It also featured the participation of the USN's P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) for the first time in the exercise series.
"Exercise 'CARAT' Singapore validates high-end warfare capabilities for both participating navies," Capt Oswald said. "We remain committed to continuing that high level of engagement [with Singapore]."
Blue Ridge 's port call at Singapore also follows on what Capt Oswald pointed out has been a successful inaugural visit to the People Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN's) South Sea Fleet in Zhanjiang in late April, the second visit to China within the space of a year after the command ship called on the PLAN's North Sea Fleet in Qingdao in August 2014.
"We are communicating well, and having met the [Chinese] fleet commanders, I think we have a common understanding and expectation of professional behaviour, especially when our ships meet at sea," he said. "As we continue to have these kinds of engagements and meetings, we are reducing the chance for miscalculation or incidents at sea," he added, noting that a visit to the PLAN's East Sea Fleet in Ningbo is being planned for 2016.
Seventh Fleet HADR capabilities have recently received a boost with the establishment of Combined Task
Force (CTF) 75 – also known as Navy Expeditionary Forces Command Pacific (NEFCPAC) – in January. CTF 75 brings together a range of unique capabilities, such as civil engineering and construction, coastal riverine operations, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), and near-shore underwater construction, and has been organised to engage in regional crisis response and HADR missions in addition to providing expeditionary support to the 7th Fleet AOR.
"They can go places where traditional non-government organisations (NGOs) and contracted support cannot, so we work with our embassies across the AOR to identify locations where our teams can engage," Capt Oswald told IHS Jane's. "With CTF-75 standing up we [expect] to see them throughout 7th Fleet. When we need to flow large amounts of resources and assets in response to a crisis, we have the expeditionary professionals to get there."