The annual multilateral exercise Cobra Gold kicked off February 25 in the Kingdom of Thailand. Since its inception, Cobra Gold has been a Thailand- and U.S.-sponsored Combined Joint Task Force and Joint Theater Security Cooperation exercise. The USS America (LHA-6) and the USS Green Bay (LPD 20) amphibious assault ships carrying the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), including F-35B aircraft, pulled into the Gulf of Thailand for this year’s drill.
While in Thailand, the Marines of the 31st MEU and sailors from both ships engaged the Royal Thai armed forces for planning in various interoperability events such as bilateral command and control, humanitarian assistance, and field training exercises to include amphibious landings and infantry integration.
The United States has had a presence in Southeast Asia for decades, and in the past 20 years that presence has remained largely unchanged. But in stark contrast to exercises in the past, 2020 is the first year that U.S. fifth-generation aircraft have been an active part of the exercise. The Marine Corps’ F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft is included in this year’s round of Cobra Gold, conducting fighter integration with the Royal Thai Air Force.
Though strengthening relationships with the host nation and preparing for large-scale natural disasters are the core roles of the exercise, strategic messaging to China may be the most important factor to consider.
The Chinese government, at the 2019 Belt and Road Forum (BRF) discussed the prospect of 200 agreements in Southeast Asia alone. For Thailand specifically, the Kra Isthmus Canal will connect the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea, giving China a way to bypass Malacca Strait to the south. This would allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Chinese commercial vessels faster access to the Indian Ocean. The roughly 1,200 kilometer shortcut will aid China in expanding its influence at lesser cost and significantly reduced times.
Against that backdrop, the United States Navy and Marine Corps will continue to integrate with Thai Armed Forces to reinforce freedom of navigation through this region — especially since the Gulf of Thailand neighbors the highly contested South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, and four Southeast Asian states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – have overlapping maritime claims.
This change in U.S. task organization comes shortly after the Marines’ central leader issued institutionally altering guidance. The 38th commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, released his planning guidance to the public on July 17, 2019. Broadly speaking, this document covers the Marine Corps’ shift of focus from Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East to Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). Particularly outlined in the guidance are three key factors that, together with the above changes to this year’s Cobra Gold Exercise, indicate the beginning of a strategic shift in Southeast Asia.
To begin with, Berger quotes former commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak’s statement about the MEU over 25 years ago. He stated that the MEU “is the jewel in our crown, and must be kept ready, relevant and capable.” Berger then elaborates on why this relevance is no longer the case — due in part to China having significantly increased its influence globally, in line with the “string of pearls” theory. Berger seems to suggest that the MEU of today is not capable of handling crises around the world while simultaneously staying dominant over near-peer adversaries across the globe. Perhaps the Gulf of Thailand will continue to host F-35B laden amphibious assault ships down the line, likely partnered with surface/subsurface combatants.
Second, the planning guidance eludes to a shift of general focus to the Pacific and away from the fading wars in the Middle East. “I will continue to advocate for the continued forward deployment of our forces globally to compete against the malign activities of China, Russia, Iran, and their proxies – with a prioritized focus on China’s One Belt One Road initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas,” Berger says. The Marine Corps is no stranger to distributed operations in the Pacific. However, the war on terror for the past two decades has degraded the Marine and Navy teams’ collaboration in the Western Pacific Theater.
The immediate solution in the short term would be to employ the maximum amount of F-35Bs aboard landing helicopter assault (LHA) class ships, while simultaneously having the capability to rapidly distribute High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) in the littorals to control the advantage in the Pacific. Ten F-35Bs deploying operationally were first introduced to INDOPACOM during the Balikatan Exercise in the Philippines in April of 2019 on the USS Wasp (LHD 1). With the Marine Corps transitioning the remainder of their AV-8B Harrier squadrons and F/A-18 squadrons to the F-35B/C squadrons over the next decade, INDOPACOM will very likely incorporate higher numbers of forward deployed, fifth-generation fighters into its routine deployment cycle.
With regards to the Philippines, there is no better time for the United States to shift focus inside of the first island chain, west of the South China Sea, and into Southeast Asia. Since the Philippines announced its intention to pull out of a military cooperation pact with the United States, China becomes the obvious power to fill that void. The writing has been on the wall since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. For example, Subic Bay, a bankrupt relic of historic U.S. naval presence has been stalked by Chinese corporations in the past year. The allure of Chinese money will open the door past the first island chain, further expanding Chinese financial and naval influence. This move would give the PLAN and commercial shipping direct access into the second island chain, moving one step closer to the United States’ back yard. The United States is likely to redefine the Chinese decision-making calculus by increasing freedom of navigation operations and building bilateral relationships with nations in Southeast Asia, a tooth for a tooth.
The final factor reflected in Berger’s guidance is the adoption of the Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations (EABO) as a core component of Marine Corps warfighting doctrine. “EABO, as an operational concept, enables the naval force to persist forward within the arc of adversary long-range precision fires to support our treaty partners with combat credible forces on a much more resilient and difficult to target forward basing infrastructure,” Berger says. Essentially, this new Marine Corps will prioritize operating in a centralized command, but with decentralized control. The Marine Corps would spread across the islands, archipelagoes, and peninsulas of the Pacific. This would keep forces from concentrating, thus complicating their adversaries’ targeting. To have a presence in distributed operations in Southeast Asia, where anti-access and area denial (A2AD) will be much harder to enforce, will be crucial to ensuring survivability for all amphibious forces operating in the Pacific.
Regardless the shifting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps approach in Southeast Asia — or all of the Western Pacific, for that matter — one thing is for certain. Survivability and victory in the Pacific will only be attained by working with key allies. This year’s Cobra Gold exercise is likely only a taste of what is to come in bilateral agreement and security cooperation for the Thai Royal Armed Forces and the United States Military as a whole. In the next few years, Cobra Gold and the rest of Southeast Asia could turn into a Cold War-esque proving-ground.
Until then, Southeast Asia will continue to serve as the crossroads between freedom of navigation operations by the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and global economic expansion with a dash of A2AD by China’s military and commercial interests.
Zachary Williams is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps who took part in the 2020 Cobra Gold exercises. He is also an MBA Student at the University of Maryland Global Campus. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps or the U.S. government.