Rear Admiral Charlie Williams is the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 73. Based in Singapore, he helps plan, organize and support the execution of key U.S.-led maritime exercises in the Asia-Pacific.
He recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the current state of and future prospects for these U.S. exercises and American presence in the region more generally. An edited version of that interview follows.
To begin, can you give us a general sense of some of the exercises that the United States conducts with its allies and partners, including CARAT and SEACAT?
We have multiple opportunities for engagement with partners and allies throughout the course of the year. One of the principal vehicles we use is our Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) series. As you know, we have been doing that series of exercises now for 21 years; we’re in the 21st year right now. Originally it had six nations that we did the exercises with, we have expanded now to ten – really nine CARAT and then we do a naval engagement activity in Vietnam which is very similar to CARAT; just a different name.
Those exercises are done in company with our partner nations in a way that we work together to figure out what are the things we’re going to work toward. And that’s based on their desires, their capacity and also of course what are our goals in the exercise. So, the great thing about this exercise is that it allows for momentum, it allows for coming back and making the exercise more complex on a year to year basis. We’re having great success with that in every country from Singapore which is probably the high end of the exercise for us, and including other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia. This year Thailand was more complex than it has ever been before, and you know, it’s a common thread, a common theme of the exercise is increasing in complexity and increasing in capacity that we work towards.
Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) is a maritime security exercise that we do right now with six partner nations, all of whom also participate in CARAT. It’s a bilateral, at sea event with a very multilateral command and control side here in Singapore where our partners including the United States will all be out of the same command and control center and communicating in a very multilateral sense. So it’s a great event for us and our partners.
What are some of the milestones and firsts that have been realized this year within these exercises?
In terms of increasing in complexity, we’ve gone from doing a CARAT exercise involving a few ships to one involving really the spectrum of capabilities that the U.S. Navy and our partner navies bring to the table. So for example, in Indonesia this year, we did an actual landing with the Indonesian navy for enhancing the amphibious operations of both their force and ours. We brought the littoral combat ship (LCS) to the table for the first time in multiple different CARATs.
In several other countries, with LCS we are able to incorporate the Fire Scout – our unmanned helicopter – and bring her to the table including here in Singapore. The event here in Singapore was particularly unique because Singapore Navy as you know operates their own unmanned helicopter and we were able to exercise both navies and both unmanned helicopters at the same time, taking it slowly at first of course, but we anticipate in future years having more integral operations between those two unmanned helicopters.
A principal player that we bring to the table now is CTF-75: that is Task Force 75 which is based out of Guam. It includes all of our naval expeditionary forces, everybody from the riverine force to our explosive ordnance detachments. So we bring them into events and in fact for several CARATS this year, we included for the first time ever the riverine command boats (RCBs). And those are fantastic platforms and capabilities to bring to our partners because they’re operating a lot of the same smaller craft and coastal forces. So bringing the CTF-75 team in has been very successful across the board.
U.S. officials have been hinting this year that 2016 could see the further expansion of exercises, particularly in Southeast Asia. Expansion can come in many forms – be it the countries involved, the types of exercises, the agencies involved within a country – and so on. What kinds of expansion do you foresee potentially occurring?
That’s a great question. I’ll start by saying that right now, we have a very successful bilateral exercise series, and we like to think of it not as a ‘CARAT week’ but really doing engagements before, during and after CARAT. That bilateral series has been very successful.
But as you know, a lot of these same partners also have bilateral exercises between themselves. We have explored and articulated a desire to take this exercise series to a multilateral level, recognizing of course that the partner nations need to be on board with doing that themselves. The reception we’ve received almost across the board I think has been very positive.
So what we’re anticipating in 2016 is a couple of events where we’d probably include two other nations and the United States to be able to have an event with these other multilateral partners working towards themes that are common to us. Those would be things like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), maritime security, or coastal patrol, depending on the forces that we bring and the extent of that exercise.
Any additional things you can tell us about what we can look forward to in 2016?
Well, I think in 2016 I would look forward to the inaugural series of multilateral events and how that will play out. I think it’s going to be a very successful series and I think our partners are anticipating it as well.
Japan, a key U.S. ally, has been increasingly involved in the security landscape in the Asia-Pacific, as was recently evidenced with its involvement in a U.S.-led maritime humanitarian exercise in the Philippines last month which you commented on. What is your assessment of Tokyo’s growing role, and what are the implications of this for the U.S. and its allies and partners?
Well, I think it’s promising for the region as a whole to see Japan operating in places like the Philippines because they’re a very natural player in the Western Pacific. And you’re right, you did see them participate in Pacific Partnership, which is the event you are talking about. And they have participated in Pacific Partnership before, this is not the first time – just so happened that it was in the Philippines. But it was wonderful to have a Japanese ship there and for their crew to participate ashore in some of the events we did as part of Pacific Partnership. They also had quite a team embark on the USNS Mercy – our hospital ship – during the earlier part of Pacific Partnership. They brought a very significant size team of doctors and medical experts to an earlier phase of Pacific Partnership.
So, all in all, I think it’s demonstrative of Japan’s desire to certainly participate more in the region and I think it’s a very natural step.
On the U.S. side, we have been seeing the deployment of several new capabilities as well, including the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), four of which are due to be operating out of Singapore by 2018. What can we expect in terms of the deployment of such new capabilities over the next few years?
Well it’s an interesting question. You’re right – first of all, we anticipate having four rotationally deployed out of Singapore in 2018. As part of that, we’re developing the idea of where and how they’re going to operate. And you’ll see, much like how Fort Worth was deployed this year, a wide spectrum of possibilities. You’ll see LCS in CARAT, SEACAT; you’ll see LCS operating in Northeast Asia as part of exercises with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and with the South Korean Navy. And you’ll see LCS doing routine patrols throughout the Pacific like our other ships do. So really what it comes down to is the LCS operating like any other 7th Fleet deployer and being able to operate in a wide spectrum of activities.
Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from the deployment of the LCS thus far that you think could be useful for the future as you are thinking through this?
Well, we’ve purposefully challenged ourselves in this deployment to expand the horizon for LCS in a couple of ways. One of those was by having her operate in Northeast Asia as part of the Foal Eagle exercise with the US Navy and the South Korean Navy. That went very well. We did a learn a couple of things out of that from an operational sense, and that was good to do. We also challenged ourselves from a maintenance standpoint to be able to expand the horizon of where we can conduct the routine maintenance availability that LCS has as part of her deployment schedule to ensure that we did a maintenance availability in Sasebo, Japan. We purposely did it after Foal Eagle so that we would be able to keep Fort Worth deployed out of Singapore more than her predecessor was, and that went very well.
We’ve also learned a tremendous amount in terms of operating the composite air detachment that we have, with one manned helicopter and one unmanned helicopter. And across the spectrum – maintenance-wise, the operational capacity of having two helicopters on the same ship, one manned and one unmanned – those I think are lessons learned as well.
Can you step back a bit and tell us how your command fit in as part of the broader ongoing “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific?
Well, first of all I think the rebalance is certainly alive and well and you see it manifested in so many ways throughout 7th fleet. The easy way to articulate it is to look at equipment – everything from the Virginia-class submarines to the Growler aircraft to adding two more destroyers to our 7th fleet force out of Yokosuka, and including by the way the entry of the Ronald Reagan as the aircraft carrier to relieve the George Washington as our deployed aircraft carrier.
But then, here in Singapore, I think you see it manifested as well in terms of LCS and Destroyer Squadron 7 being forward-deployed out of Singapore, essentially adding a complete and fully operational second destroyer squadron to the region, which is a powerful tool.
Now, my command’s role in that rebalance is really to keep doing the logistics and the maintenance and the replenishment of the fleet that we have for many years and to be more responsive and more agile. You see it with a couple of things that COMLOG WESPAC, which I head, has added to the force as well. So we have two new ship classes that have deployed here in 7th fleet for the first time. One is our joint high-speed vessel (JHSV) – which has just been renamed Expeditionary Fast Transport ship (EPF) – which has already participated in Pacific Partnership and we’re going to have her participate in CARAT Brunei pretty soon. You’ll see her bring a great capability in terms of lift capacity and high speed transport.
We also added another ship class which is called the expeditionary transfer dock (ESD) – which used to be called the mobile landing platform – that has arrived and is operating up north right now. We’ll bring her here out here to Southeast Asia as well, but she brings a great capability in terms of being just that: a mobile logistics platform and adding again a sense of agility in being able to care for and sustain the fleet.
You mentioned the importance of being “responsive” in your last response. Based on the conversations you have had with U.S. allies and partners in the region, what are they telling you in terms of what they would like to see more of from the United States based on their existing needs? Give us your sense of the ‘demand-side’ for U.S. presence and cooperation in the region.
That’s an interesting question and a very good one. I think first of all our partners want to see persistence, and I think that’s exactly what they are seeing. You see a persistent sense in our presence throughout the region in every country. Really, when it comes down to it, it’s nothing different – we’re not operating differently today than we did five years ago or ten years ago. It’s all about presence.
A great example of that presence and the effect it can have was on December 29 when we brought Fort Worth here for the first time in Singapore, and I think it was either that day or the day before that the AirAsia flight went down in the Java Sea. It so happened that we had an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer also here in Singapore on December 29. So, because of that persistent presence we were able to turn both of those ships around and deploy them to the Java Sea. We even added a team on board LCS and put a side-scan sonar and a mobile diving and salvage team on board Fort Worth. Very flexible, and a great response from them as well. And we got both ships over to the Java Sea to assist with the Indonesian Navy in the search for the AirAsia flight. That, I think, is the manifestation of presence. That’s what our partners desire and that’s what they’re seeing.
Speaking of “presence,” over the past few years, there have been conversations about the United States potentially getting access to certain areas in allied or partner countries, such as Subic Bay in the Philippines or Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. While these conversations are still very much ongoing, can you give us a general sense of the importance of additional presence in such strategic locations for the United States and the region, and how that would impact your engagement?
That’s a good question. I think that you see it happening now in ways that are reflected by our littoral combat ship the Fort Worth. First of all, you’re right: access is very important for every navy But it really comes down to being able to operate in and around the international waters that we always have. So, places like Subic Bay are important to us certainly. But to give another example, this year Fort Worth is operating in the MALABAR exercises and will be in port in Chennai, India. And I think that’s another demonstration of what we can do with a ship like the Fort Worth and be able to get her in and around the fleet.