Having spent the past 20 months forward-deployed to Southeast Asia, first as deputy commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7 and now as the commodore, I’m convinced this region is one of the world’s preeminent maritime theaters and it will play an even greater role shaping our future in the decades ahead.
Indeed, we see evidence that Southeast Asia is a region on the rise wherever we operate as we help execute America’s Rebalance to the Pacific. Put another way, DESRON 7 “lives the Rebalance” every day and has been doing so since we departed San Diego, Calif., in late 2012 to join Seventh Fleet’s forward-deployed naval forces. In fact, I’d like to think that the Golden Arrows of DESRON 7 are on our way to becoming one of the U.S. Navy’s most familiar faces in Southeast Asia.
Fittingly, our most prominent role since our arrival in Southeast Asia has been leading the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series, our Navy’s premier naval engagement in the region. In its 20th year, CARAT is a bilateral exercise series that takes DESRON 7 throughout Southeast Asia including Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines. More recently, Bangladesh and Timor Leste have been added to the CARAT family, with Naval Engagement Activity Vietnam rounding out this slate of regional exercises.
This week, we just wrapped up CARAT Singapore, one of the most advanced and complex exercises we’ve participated in thus far. With a total of eight warships including Aegis destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) and USS Halsey (DDG 97), our newest P-8 Poseidon detachment, and an ambitious multiple-mission, multiple-warfare program driving the exercise, there was no question that our ships and Sailors are honing their operational and warfighting edge as we build capacity and partnership in the region.
This year’s exercise also featured one of CARAT’s original sailors, Navy Fleet Commander, Rear Adm. Tim Lo, who along with my boss, Rear Adm. Charlie Williams, Commander Task Force 73, served as co-commander of the USN-RSN CARAT task force. Admiral Lo’s rise from a young officer participating in the first year of CARAT to commanding this one demonstrates how relationships forged in regional exercises often lead to bigger things as young leaders rise through the ranks of their navies.
Admiral Lo’s two decade involvement in CARAT speaks to one of things that impresses me most about CARAT: the quality of people my staff and I encounter throughout our work in this theater. During this year’s exercise, I embarked RSS Formidable (RSS 68) to co-lead our combined task group with my Singaporean counterpart, Col. Ken Cheong. Cambridge-educated and a superb naval thinker, Ken is the kind of leader who would be a success in any Navy and his “homefield” perspective on the busy waterways of Southeast Asia proved invaluable.
Because for any ship or task group, operating near the Strait of Malacca in the South China Sea with hundreds of contacts dotting its radar screens is no easy task. But with this body of water located in the Republic of Singapore Navy’s maritime backyard, their ships have become extraordinarily proficient maneuvering in operating areas that are among the most densely traveled in the world. Watching the Singaporeans work at sea reminded me yet again that learning flows both ways when the U.S. Navy operates alongside our partners at sea, and in the case of Singapore, our partnership and mutual learning will only increase as USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) and future littoral combat ships rotationally deploy to this amazing country and region.
As I worked with Ken, however, it was even more striking to see how closely and naturally both American and Singaporean junior officers worked together. We now live in a smaller, more interconnected world and I marvel at the ease with which our young leaders interact with each other. Fueled by the tools and perspectives of the global marketplace, we are developing a new generation of empowered, technically savvy and culturally adept leaders who can reach out to a global network of peers whenever they need help and I believe both our navies will be better for it.
That’s a good thing because during my time in Southeast Asia, I’ve been reminded that the sea remains a place of great opportunities but also genuine challenges. And in the maritime commons, these regional challenges can often best be solved with regional approaches. No nation has the market cornered on talent or all the right answers, and exercises like CARAT enable us to learn from each and help other nations build capacity as we improve our own. With CARAT veterans like Admiral Lo and Ken Cheong already making a difference and the promise I see in the young leaders in both our navies, I believe even better days remain ahead.