Cobra Gold 2018

Live fire, civic action, disaster relief mark multinational exercise


They engaged in live-fire exercises. They stormed a beach while attack aircraft provided cover. They even tested their survival skills in the steamy jungles of Thailand by drinking snake’s blood.

Despite the litany of experiences that were as diverse as the participants, the most enduring legacy of Cobra Gold 2018 wasn’t a crisp amphibious assault, a well-aimed mortar round or even the school buildings constructed for Thai communities. Cobra Gold’s hallmark has always been the lasting friendships forged between military forces of partner nations.

“Global security challenges require global solutions,” said Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., then commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, during closing ceremonies of Cobra Gold 2018, the largest multinational military exercise in the Indo-Pacific. “So, I’m inspired by our deep alliance with Thailand and committed to expanding our partnerships with like-minded nations as we all work together to keep this region secure, to keep this region prosperous and to keep this region peaceful.”

Thai Soldiers display flags at the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold 2018 at the U-Tapao Airport in Rayong province, Thailand.

Cobra Gold 2018, co-hosted by Thailand and the U.S. in February 2018, attracted 29 countries to Thailand. Seven nations — Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S. — fully participated by providing personnel and equipment to the exercise. A Thai Cobra Gold veteran agreed with Harris that relationship building is the most important indicator of success.

“It helps develop and strengthen the relationships between all seven participating nations,” said Col. Khajornsak “Jorn” Pullphothong, director of the Exercise Control Division of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. “It’s [Cobra Gold] improving every year.”

Jorn told FORUM that ties established during past iterations of Cobra Gold paid off when an earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, killing 9,000 people and injuring 22,000. Because the Thai military had worked with Malaysia and Singapore during previous Cobra Gold exercises, the countries quickly formed a response team when they arrived in Nepal. “We didn’t need to develop everything from zero,” Jorn said. “We trust each other.”

The partnership between the host nations also contributes to regional security. “The Royal Thai Army and the U.S. have a longstanding relationship that has contributed to security and stability in the region,” said Col. Anthony Lugo, commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. “The partnered training efforts taking place today will ensure that our two forces will be ready to rapidly deploy in response to crises in the region tomorrow.”

Storming the beach

In a finely tuned symphony of ships, landing craft and attack aircraft, Marines from South Korea, Thailand and the U.S. engineered an amphibious assault on Thailand’s Hat Yao Beach as Cobra Gold 2018 kicked off. The simulated assault began 3.2 kilometers off the coast, where amphibious ships launched landing craft in conjunction with flight operations. The seamless display of interoperability was no happenstance.

“This amphibious assault was the culmination of months of planning. I am proud of the safe and superb execution from all involved,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the Amphibious Force 7th Fleet and deputy commander of the Cobra Gold Amphibious Task Force. “From a Navy-to-Navy perspective, our relationship with Thailand has always been strong, and this exercise reinforces our bonds and ability to respond together as a combined force.”

Republic of Korea Marines participate in an amphibious assault exercise in Chonburi province, Thailand.

Personnel aboard the ships, landing craft and aircraft spent days rehearsing for the assault to make sure the timing of each wave met objectives. Liaison officers staffed each ship to ensure that each nation’s intentions were understood.

“Working together like this is evidence of the alliance we share,” said Lt. Youngwon Kim, a Republic of Korea Navy officer who served aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, according to a story published by the U.S. Marine Corps.

Keeping the peace

Trouble is always brewing on the fictional continent of Pacifica. On a map that mirrors the western United States, the imaginary countries of Sonora and Mojave are in conflict again. After Sonora invaded Mojave, the leaders of Cobra Gold’s Command Post Exercise included several surprises for their training participants to gauge how they would keep supply lines running, gather intelligence, detain enemy combatants and enforce the peace.

The scenario was patterned after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In addition to managing United Nations peacekeeping operations, military personnel also supervised a noncombatant evacuation. The surprises kept coming. While trying to enforce the peace, participants were faced with a simulated explosion at a Mojave hospital that caused many casualties. Meanwhile, Sonora was blaming the multinational Combined Task Force for the blast. The task force had to identify the source of the explosion.

The exercise also challenged commanders to resolve complex humanitarian issues, so participants were guided by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“By playing it through realistically, it opens up conversations and better understanding between organizations,” said Paul Baker, ICRC delegate for military and armed groups in Southeast Asia. “It’s important that forces understand the role of the ICRC in conflict. It was great of the planners to include us in this exercise.”

Lt. Col. Norhayati Hassan of the Malaysian Joint Forces Headquarters said the Command Post Exercise provided a new experience for Malaysian officers who haven’t been exposed to multinational operations.

“In a war room with other forces, you get support from others to share capabilities and capacity,” she said. For Malaysian forces, she said, the exercise opened their eyes. “They are not used to joint operations,” she said, “and this is a coalition.”

Preparing for disasters

In the world’s most disaster-prone region, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief took center stage. Countries that battle earthquakes, typhoons, landslides and floods worked together on scenarios involving rescues, evacuations and emergency medical treatment.

At Thailand’s 49-acre Disaster Relief Training Center in Chachoengsao province, a disaster response team fast-roped from a helicopter to a mock disaster scene. Rescuers combed the rubble of a collapsed building to search for victims before taking them to a field hospital for assessment.

Republic of Korea amphibious assault vehicles create smoke screens as they approach Hat Yao beach during Cobra Gold 2018.

“You have multinational doctors working together in a field hospital, conducting triage and assessment of patients who were hurt in the building collapse,” explained U.S. Army Maj. Robert L. Vandertuin, head of the combined joint civil-military operations task force for Cobra Gold.

One of the valuable experiences, he said, was the chance to assess the capabilities of partner nations, so they can be tapped when real disasters occur.

“The benefit of working with all of these multinational forces is understanding what they bring to the table at a time of disaster,” he said.

Col. Thienthas Paamuangliam, deputy director of Thailand’s Disaster Relief Training Center, said the 2-year-old training center can simulate everything from a mountain rescue to flash floods to a building collapse. 

“This is a place where we learn, and we share everything we’ve learned,” he said.

U.S. and Thai Army Soldiers conduct combat engineer training during a live-fire exercise.

In addition to the mock rescue, Cobra Gold included a noncombatant evacuation operation, which governments order when their citizens are in danger in a foreign country. These operations are typically spurred by a natural disaster or a deteriorating security situation. Exercise trainers simulated the processing of Japanese nationals who were being evacuated from a foreign country. Japanese participants in the exercise pretended to have forgotten important documents, while others were assigned medical conditions that needed assessment.

After having their passports checked, the evacuees received a security pat-down before moving to a reception area. There, they were separated by nationality and asked to show proper documentation. Eventually, they were placed on a C-130 aircraft for a short flight before landing at the same airport.

Lasting reminder

Cobra Gold’s impact in Thailand extends beyond the excitement of having visiting militaries training together in country. Civic action is always a pillar of Cobra Gold, and the 2018 iteration was no exception. Military engineers built six school-improvement projects throughout the country. By the time Cobra Gold ended, the militaries had placed 124 pillars and more than 15,000 concrete blocks. At a school building at Banthungsohongsa, Thailand, service members from Indonesia, Thailand and the U.S. gathered for a pillar-raising ceremony. The main pillar was blessed by Buddhist monks.

“I feel honored and glad [we are receiving] this construction, which will benefit Thai students,” said Banthungsohongsa School Principal Wanching Koolhakool. “It’s going to be a place for learning activities for the kindergarten grade and will be able to support more than 40 students.”

A Royal Thai M60A1 battle tank advances toward a target during a live-fire exercise. SGT. REBECCA L. FLOTO/U.S. MARINE CORPS

After a dedication of another school building, a top Thai Army official told FORUM the engineering projects create public support for the military.

“We have to use the field [for military exercises], and sometimes we would possibly destroy crops in the old days,” said Gen. Pornpipat Benyasri, chief of staff of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. “When the Army is doing an exercise, we have something to return to them to compensate what we have possibly destroyed.”

Now the goal is broader than replacing damaged property. It’s about creating strong civil-military relationships. “Now we have changed our doctrine,” the general said. “The Army must have the civilians by our side.”

Jungle training

The rations and water were consumed, and resupply was still days away. The sun continued to beat down on the humid Thai jungle, where South Korean and U.S. Marines were being trained by Thai experts on jungle survival skills.

“Survival is an important skill for all troops to learn, especially troops who may only have experience in urban combat but not in jungle survival,” said Royal Thai Marine Corps Master Sgt. Pairoj Prasansai, a jungle survival training instructor.

The course taught Marines how to find water sources, start fires, distinguish between edible vegetation and dangerous plants and even learn what insects to eat. The course is better known, however, for its signature event. 

Royal Thai Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Pornpipat Benyasri explains how the Cobra Gold tradition of building multipurpose facilities at local schools helps unite the public with the Thai military. CPL. JUSTIN HUFFTY/U.S. MARINE CORPS

“In the wilderness, you can drink the blood of a snake to stay hydrated,” Prasansai told the Marines as he picked up a cobra. “Snakes can provide you with both the food and water you need to survive.”

After preparing the snake, students were given the opportunity to drink the cobra’s blood.

“It tastes like blood with a hint of fish,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Christopher Fiffie, according to an account posted by the U.S. Marine Corps. Many students said they gained valuable knowledge from the exercise training. 

A U.S. Marine drinks the blood of a cobra during a jungle survival exercise. REUTERS

“I’ve never done anything like this before, and I didn’t know you could eat most of those plants,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. William Singleton. “Seeing the different animals that you can eat is pretty mind-blowing. It will help us recognize [edible food sources] easier in the wilderness.”

Long-term payoff

“This year marks the 37th iteration of Cobra Gold, the largest theater security operation exercise in Asia with nearly 30 nations participating in the various training events. That level of military participation,” Adm. Harris offered, “demonstrates a growing commitment to do the hard work and increases interoperability among our militaries now, so that we know what works when crisis strikes.”

Repeating exercises and building upon those experiences pays off when partner nations face crises or military conflicts together. “Ancient wisdom holds what modern experience confirms,” Harris said. “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”  

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