Gusty Da Costa
More than 500 Thai and United States paratroopers dropped into fields of tall tropical grasses near Fort Thanarat in Prachuap Khiri Khan in western Thailand in early March 2023. Soon, MV-22 Osprey and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters loaded with Republic of Korea (ROK), Thai and U.S. Marines secured an airstrip to allow follow-on forces to maneuver freely.
In the days after, Cobra Gold 2023 participants engaged in live-fire drills and mock amphibious attacks as well as cyber defense and space operations to encompass all battlespace domains. Training included civil engineering projects, jungle survival courses and lessons in traditional Thai boxing, known as Muay Thai.
More than 10,000 military personnel from 27 countries deployed to Thailand from February 28 to March 10 for the 42nd iteration of the exercise, which is sponsored by Thailand and the U.S. Drills also were staged in Chanthaburi, Chonburi, Lopburi, Rayong and Sa Kaeo provinces.
Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea attended as full participants in the multilateral military exercise, which is one of the world’s largest and longest running. Delegations from 20 other nations took part as limited participants or observers. Cobra Gold’s wide-ranging program reflects the varied contemporary challenges facing the region’s militaries.
“The scope of military operations that enhance our regional stability are virtually expanded to handle the full spectrum of threats in all domains, including land, sea, air, cyber and space. Additionally, peacekeeping operations, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are also included,” Gen. Chalermpol Srisawasdi, Royal Thai Armed Forces Chief of Defense, said in his opening ceremony address. “All of these help us maintain our regional security and be ready to provide necessary assistance and disaster relief as we have successfully shown in the past.”
“Through Cobra Gold, we demonstrate our resolve to respond together to future challenges, preserving a Free and Open Indo-Pacific where all nations can prosper,” Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at the ceremony.
Cobra Gold 2023 showcased combat and humanitarian relief operations, but information and technology sharing, readiness and seamless interoperability are at the heart of the exercise.
“It is very important to train together. … If there are tensions in the region, we know each other,” said Cherngchai Chomcherngpat, commander in chief of the Royal Thai Navy, The Defense Post, a security and defense publication, reported.
“While we all speak different languages, we come together with common bonds in pursuit of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which is what Cobra Gold is all about,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jonathan Coronel, according to The Defense Post.
More than 8,400 U.S. personnel deployed to the exercise, along with 4,000 Thai personnel, 420 from South Korea, 146 from Japan and 54 from Singapore, with varying numbers from other participants — a testament to the strength of regional partnerships and cooperation.
Preparing for Combat
Under blue skies, amphibious landing vehicles moved across a stretch of sea to a remote beach. Weapons drawn, ROK Marines, along with their Thai and U.S. counterparts, proceeded across the beach as a helicopter swooped overhead. Other troops dropped to the ground to cover their advancing comrades.
The landing team rehearsed denying an enemy’s firepower with base camp fire supported by ship cannons and close air support. The land regiment then arrived on the beach and penetrated the enemy’s territory while also establishing beach security.
The drill’s fluid display of interoperability was the result of thoughtful coordination and perseverance by planners, leaders, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other personnel.
Along with Marine ground commanders, the Royal Thai Navy sent its biggest amphibious ship, the HTMS Angthong, and a landing craft utility ship, the Royal Ravi. South Korea deployed an F-16 jet fighter and an amphibious assault vehicle, while the U.S. sent the USS Makin Island, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, F-35 jet fighters and other military assets.
Working Together to Strengthen Communities
While combat drills demonstrated cooperative resolve at Cobra Gold 2023, civic activities also highlighted fortitude and resilience. Soldiers from India and Indonesia joined Royal Thai Air Force personnel and U.S. Airmen from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to assemble a multifunctional building at the Ban Khao Talat School in Rayong province. The project reflected the exercise’s focus on community service and humanitarian aid to improve regional cooperation, according to U.S. Pacific Air Forces.
“My team has been working with the Thai Mobile Development Unit 14 and the Indonesian Army,” said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Andrew Morgenstern. “We mesh well as a team and have learned quite a bit from one another. Particularly, I’ve been impressed by the efficiency of the Thais and the expertise of the Indonesians.”
An Indonesian Army officer emphasized the importance of exercises such as Cobra Gold. “This joint exercise also gives room and opportunity for respective militaries to interact, build friendships, and provide a mutual understanding of the culture, customs and traditions, and characters of every country involved,” the officer told FORUM. “This direct and profound understanding can effectively narrow down miscommunication … by understanding the character of each nation.”
Singapore Armed Forces personnel participated in a cyber defense drill and a civil engineering project with Thai and U.S. troops to construct a multipurpose building at Ban Mor Mui School, also in Rayong, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.
Meanwhile, members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces joined Thai and U.S. service members in a noncombat evacuation drill at U-Tapao International Airport in Rayong. They conducted searches, identity and baggage checks, and chemical substance tests as displaced passengers arrived at the airport during the simulation.
“Skills and proficiency that are required for complex combined operations can be obtained during such activities, which will contribute to whatever role Korea is required to play,” retired ROK Army Lt. Gen. Chun In-Bum told FORUM. “In order to be effective during an international crisis, training is vital and therefore Korea uses every opportunity to train with international organizations and militaries, as well as opportunities like Cobra Gold.”
South Korea has participated in Cobra Gold since 2002, becoming a full participant in 2010. Along with the amphibious landing drills with Thai and U.S. troops, ROK service members took part in activities including special operator training in a jungle environment.
Countries including Canada, Fiji, France, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines and the United Kingdom deployed smaller teams to the staff exercise.
Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, meanwhile, participated in the staff and cyber exercises to prepare for shared regional security challenges. “Australia is committed to deepening its defense partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region,” an ADF spokesperson told FORUM. “Multilateral defense exercises, such as exercise Cobra Gold, help the Australian Defence Force further develop cooperation and deepen interoperability between militaries to support a stable, prosperous and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
Valuing Ancient Combat Techniques
Thai martial arts champion Sombat Banchamek trained U.S. service members in Muay Thai, an ancient combat sport characterized by the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins. The champion is better known by his stage name Buakaw, which in Thai means “white lotus.” “For every U.S. Soldier who came to train in Cobra Gold, they also want to exchange and study our culture regarding Muay Thai, which is our national art,” Buakaw told Reuters.
U.S. Army Spc. Adam Castle praised the benefits of the training and the rare opportunity to study the technique with one of its top practitioners. “It’s been really great to learn some skills that we can take back and use in the future,” Castle said.
Skills acquisition, improved interoperability, and familiarity with new systems and techniques were among the benefits for Cobra Gold 2023 participants, according to Dave Laksono, a lawmaker from Indonesia’s House of Representatives Commission 1, which oversees defense and foreign affairs.
However, the opportunity to build relationships with counterparts from around the region will have an even deeper, more lasting impact. “With a vast network, young officers can connect with officers of the same rank from other countries,” he said. “Today, they may be only a commander of a battalion or a platoon. In the future, they can be Army chiefs of staff in their respective countries or future policymakers.”
Gusty Da Costa is a FORUM contributor based in Jakarta, Indonesia.