Exercise Cobra Gold 09 with the US Marine Corps and the USS Essex (LHD-2)
Exercise Cobra Gold is an annual multi-national exercise conducted in the Kingdom of Thailand. The aim of the exercise is to improve joint and multinational interoperability and capability to effectively plan and execute complex multinational operations. This year’s exercise, lasting from February 4-17, 2009, is the 28th exercise in the series, and marks the return of large scale US Navy and Marine Corps participation after a much smaller involvement due to operational reasons in 2008.
The exercise scenario is focused on the most likely contingency operations expected in the Southeast Asia region, addressing regional security, counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency issues, improving military-to-military relationships between the participating nations, advancing the US Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation objectives and Royal Thai Supreme Commander training guidance. The exercise will demonstrate the ability to deploy a Joint Task Force rapidly to conduct joint/combined operations, transition of authority with a United Nations Force, and a field training exercise.
Marine Corps Assets
Full participating nations for Cobra Gold ‘09 include Thailand, the United States, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. This year’s exercise is planned by the US Army and headquartered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai with participating forces operating out of various locations throughout Thailand. Included in these forces are those of the US Marine Corps, whose order of battle for this exercise included the Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) consisting of the USS Essex (LHD-2), USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49), USS Tortuga (LSD-46) and the USS Stethem (DDG-63). Embarked onboard the Essex ESG are the Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) while the helicopters of HMM-262 Flying Tigers (Reinforced) and the AV-8B Harriers of VMA-211 Wake Island Avengers constituted the ship’s Air Combat Element (ACE). The ESG was on its annual spring patrol and operated from the Gulf of Thailand off the port of Sattahip for the duration of the exercise.
Meanwhile, USMC fixed wing assets deployed to the Royal Thai Naval Air Station at U-Tapao. The eight AV-8B Harriers from VMA-211 flew in to the base before the start of the exercise. The Harriers deployed in what is known as a “Squadron Lite” configuration, comprising six radar-equiped AV-8B Harrier II+ and two AV-8B Night Attack Harriers. Normally based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, Arizona, VMA-211 is currently on a six-month attachment to the 31st MEU’s Wing Liaison at Kadena, Okinawa as part of the Marine Corps’ Unit Deployment Program (UDP). The squadron’s aircraft are fully integrated with the Northrop Grumman Litening II targeting pod, which has vastly improved the Harrier’s ability to conduct close air support and armed reconnaissance missions.
The Harriers were joined by ten F/A-18D Hornets from VMFA(AW)-242 Bats and four KC-130J Hercules tankers from VMGR-152 Sumos at U-Tapao. The two squadrons are permanently forward deployed at MCAS Iwakuni and Futenma respectively and frequently participate in exercises throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The well-traveled Bats, flying a mixture of F/A-18D and F/A-18D Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS) aircraft, have had a longstanding association with the region, having deployed to Iwakuni several times as part of the UDP since 1992 before making the move permanent in 2008. The squadron’s missions have taken it to several far flung destinations including Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.
One of the primary missions of the Essex ESG at Cobra Gold is to enhance interoperability with the Royal Thai Armed Forces in amphibious operations. To that end, a variety of joint operations were undertaken, comprising of two days of deck landing qualifications on the USS Essex for USMC and Royal Thai Navy (RTN) helicopters as well as launching of heliborne raids. The RTN contributed three helicopters; two S-70B-2 Seahawks and a Super Lynx 300 for this component of the exercise, with HMM-262 (Reinforced) providing the bulk of rotary wing assets in the form of twelve CH-46E Sea Knights, four CH-53E Super Stallions, four AH-1W SuperCobras and two UH-1N Hueys. Two US Navy MH-60S Knighthawks from the Island Knights of HSC-25 Det. 6 were also deployed on board, providing Vertical Replenishment, Search and Rescue and other support functions to the ESG.
The Essex ESG’s participation culminated in a joint amphibious landing by the 31st MEU and Royal Thai Marine forces and simulated non-combatant evacuation exercises at Hat Yao Beach on February 13 and 15 respectively. Close air support for the amphibious landing was provided by the Marine Harriers and Cobras, while the RTN helicopters, CH-46s and CH-53s together with American and Thai Amtracs and Marine Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCACs) ferried the Marines storming the beach.
Away from the beaches, the Hornets of VMFA(AW)-242, operating out of U-Tapao, took part in a variety of missions during the Large Force Exercise with the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). The exercise focused on air-to-air and air-to-ground combat training scenarios, allowing command and control personnel, air controllers, and pilots to gain experience and improve their tactical capabilities. A typical mission for the Marine Hornets would consist of in-flight refueling with the KC-130s, progressing to dog-fighting with simulated combatants during the ingress to their planned objectives, dropping inert ordnance on assigned targets and then returning to U-Tapao. The missions require careful coordination with USAF and RTAF controllers stationed in different parts of Thailand, and provide a unique opportunity for the Marine pilots to work with their USAF and RTAF counterparts.
Multi-national exercises such as Cobra Gold, in addition to providing realistic training for coalition warfare and various tactical scenarios, also provide vital opportunities for the men and women of the various militaries to work alongside each other, helping to break down cultural barriers and build up trust in each other’s capabilities, in the process enhancing regional security. The widening scope of such exercises, now encompassing missions such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and non-combatant evacuation reflect the reality today, as militaries take part more regularly in such non-traditional missions. As the nature of security issues evolve, so must the planning and execution of such exercises to keep pace with the issues, to ensure that the realism and relevance of such exercises continue.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Alert 5 for this opportunity, as well as LT Denver Applehans and CTF-76, US Navy for their kind assistance and the crew of the USS Essex and Marines of VMA-211 for their hospitality during the authors’ visit.
More photos of the visit to the USS Essex can be found in the Cobra Gold Gallery