The Navy is searching for ways to improve a longstanding series of military drills with its partner nations across Southeast Asia.
Depth — including the addition of drones and other high-tech weapons, more gunnery and training to intercept smugglers — will be added to Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, said Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for 7th Fleet’s Singapore-based Task Force 73.
CARAT — a five-month series of separate training exercises with Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and East Timor — has traditionally featured a wide range of naval operations, including surface, undersea, aviation and amphibious warfare.
“We are looking for ways to increase the complexity and sophistication of the exercises with each of our partners,” Abrahamson said.
Last year, for example, the Navy flew its Fire Scout drone from the newly launched USS Fort Worth littoral combat ship while the Singaporeans operated a Scan Eagle drone, he said.
The Navy has also added to gunnery drills and increased training on boarding and searching ships at sea to intercept smugglers with many of the nations, he said. This year, it will practice search-and-rescue drills with Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
For the past two decades, CARAT has involved only bilateral exercises, but there are plans to include multinational events this year, Abrahamson said. The goal is to bring together several partner nations for exercises while helping each nation achieve its training goals. Planners have yet to determine which countries will be involved in the multinational events, he said.
These efforts are in line with the rebalance of U.S. military forces to the Pacific, a plan in which 60 percent of the Navy is expected to be based in the region by the end of the decade, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the Senate Committee on Armed Services last year.
Naval forces from across the 7th Fleet, including amphibious ships and destroyers from Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan, will participate in CARAT exercises with Okinawa-based Marines and forces from the U.S. mainland, Abrahamson said.
This year’s exercises with Cambodia and East Timor will be overseen by Task Force 75 out of Guam, he said, while Task Force 73 will take charge of other CARAT events.
An agreement that allows U.S. forces to return to bases in the Philippines on short-term deployments — seen by many as a bulwark against Chinese efforts to gain sovereignty over territory in the South China Sea — won’t impact this year’s CARAT exercise in the islands, Abrahamson said.
Previous training in the Philippines has involved maneuvers in the South China Sea, beach-assault simulations and other training aimed at getting U.S. and Philippine forces used to working together.
This year, the Philippines exercises will continue to grow in sophistication, but the base agreement won’t impact the training, Abrahamson said.
“We will continue to focus on training that benefits both nations,” he said, adding that each exercise is unique and tailored to specific training goals.
“The goal for CARAT has always been to strengthen relationships and enhance interoperability with our partners,” he said. “We meet this objective by training with each other and learning from each other so we can work efficiently and effectively during crisis.”
Editor's Note: Corrects task force responsibilities.