How Cobra Gold Helps the US Strengthen Its Indo-Pacific Partnerships

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How Cobra Gold Helps the US Strengthen Its Indo-Pacific Partnerships

Through combined exercises and enduring engagements, the United States is building “deterrence through assurance.”

How Cobra Gold Helps the US Strengthen Its Indo-Pacific Partnerships

Thai, South Korean, and U.S. Marines conduct a combined joint amphibious exercise during COBRA GOLD.

Credit: Cody Chick

Contested waters in the South China Sea, the war in Ukraine, and escalating tensions between great power rivals have all created opportunities for the United States to strengthen its alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. Since 2022, the National Defense Strategy has established integrated deterrence as the framework for strengthening alliances, providing an adversary-focused approach to comprehensive security. Integral to the success of deterrence is providing “integrated assurance,” a campaign to “assure” partners and allies through security cooperation to reinforce joint, multinational partnerships that can credibly deter rivals.  

As Gen. Charles Flynn and Lt.-Col. Tim Devine wrote in a recent piece for Proceedings on land-naval integration, “The Army is consequently fostering unity of effort by welcoming others with skin in the game and helping them build more credible means to support shared national interests on land and at sea. Campaigning as a combined joint force allows the United States and its allies to apply unity of effort to achieve common objectives.”

Exercise Cobra Gold stands out as a case study that can illustrate the importance of campaigning to build integrated assurance, and takes place within a network of enduring engagements that are critical to understanding regional challenges and supporting military-to-military relations. As the risk of conflict may increase within the Indo-Pacific, it becomes more critical than ever to communicate U.S. commitment to regional partners to build a shared investment for security cooperation.

Integrated Assurance

Integrated assurance is the other side of the coin from integrated deterrence. Deterrence tends to be threat-based, focused on denial and then on inflicting punishment or other costs if an aggressive action is taken. Integrated assurance, meanwhile, is partner-focused, physically posturing, protecting, and sustaining U.S. people and resources alongside those of friendly nations. This builds tangible trust and mutual responsibility to provide security for shared interests. Integrated assurance deepens diplomatic, military, economic, information, and technological cooperation and in turn can feed the capabilities for punishment or denial through deterrence.

Integrated assurance translates the integrated deterrence approach articulated in national strategy into an actionable, ground-level framework. It deters adversaries at the strategic level by materially focusing on partners and allies at the tactical and operational levels, building mutual understanding and human interoperability. Within military campaigning, joint exercises and security cooperation provide integrated assurance through training and relationship building while supporting strategic ends with a combat credible force.

This assurance can only be done through showing commitment — the commitment of time, resources, and service members to support allies and partners in response to shared opportunities and threats. Integrated assurance provides the connective tissue that ties the strategic framework to purposeful understanding at the tactical level.

Moreover, integrated assurance is the linchpin to effective campaigning. It is one of the distinctions that would make an infantry platoon training with NATO allies during the Cold War understand their overarching purpose, while units elsewhere during the relatively peaceful 1990s may have struggled to understand how their combined training made a tangible difference. While the United States military has participated in multinational exercises for years, the focus on campaigning has concentrated efforts to have purposeful, incremental engagements that are mutually supporting and have a clear shared end-state.

This type of assurance moves horizontally between nations and forms of national power, and vertically by providing meaningful interactions, from cooperation between senior leaders down to join training between service-members at the tactical level. The foreign academy exchange program at West Point is one example of how key military leader relations can be first developed and consistently fostered in an officer’s career through annual exercises like Cobra Gold to provide integrated assurance. These continual engagements build friendships and personal connections that can be instrumental in shaping pro-U.S. military policies for senior leaders and trust between units in time of conflict. During steady state operations, the U.S. military primarily competes through combined exercises and enduring engagements with partners to build integrated assurance.

Key Security Cooperation partnerships

Exercise Cobra Gold, most recently held during February 27-March 8 in Thailand, serves as a tactical platform for facilitating military-to-military interactions and creating greater integrated assurance. In the most recent iteration, there were 10 participating nations: Thailand, the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, China, India, and Australia. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, joint multinational exercises have only grown and provide additional opportunities for militaries to work together.

On a tactical level, exercises are necessary to demonstrate commitment, building interoperability and readiness. On a strategic level, it signals a positive trend in coalitions and international affairs within the region. At Cobra Gold, each member of the Quad (the United States, Australia, India and Japan) were present, as well as the Republic of Korea (ROK) which has gradually warmed relations with Japan as demonstrated in the trilateral security pact summit at Camp David in August 2023. One measure of cooperation is identifying how many interactions certain countries have (or not) at the tactical level.

Cobra Gold focuses on a multinational force command post exercise (MNF-CPX), combined joint field training exercises, senior leader seminars, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). During the most recent iteration of Cobra Gold, India, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Australia limited their participation to the humanitarian and civic assistance portion. Yet, several key Cobra Gold events highlighted growing cooperation between countries.

The largest training portion in Cobra Gold is the MNF-CPX, in which each of the major contributing countries participated. Within the MNF-CPX, seven nations participated in solving a notional regional crisis with the intent of broadening mutual understanding of capabilities and limitations, developing interoperability, and building relationships. This exercise emphasized large-scale combat operations and maritime security within a multi-domain environment. Command post exercises are not superfluous to the U.S. Army Pacific’s approach to campaigning. Rather, “collectively, Operation Pathways combines individual and tactical actions to solve operational and strategic problems.” The MNF-CPX offered a chance to observe interactions between each country’s staffs, as well as providing first-hand accounts from service members about today’s security challenges and insights into growing partnerships.

During the Cyber Exercise of Cobra Gold, U.S., Japanese, and South Korean service-members integrated operating practices to conduct a combined digital defense. Photo provided by Cody Chick.

Japan-ROK Relations

Relations between Japan and South Korea continue to stabilize in response to growing regional threats. During Cobra Gold, both countries participated in civic assistance projects, the ROK conducted a combined amphibious exercise with the Thai and U.S. Marines, and all three members of the trilateral security pact shared a table for the cyber exercise.   

Outside of Cobra Gold, Japan and South Korea have traditionally conducted some form of tactical hedging due to economic coupling with the PRC, but both have also made various public commitments to increasing security cooperation with the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Japan to normalize its military, increasing its capability and scope to deter aggression.

Likewise, an unprecedented amount of newly sophisticated North Korean missile tests and a growing hostility by the PRC in the region have signaled the need for Japan and South Korea to present a unified front. Unlike anything in the past decade, Japan, South Korea, and the United States held 30 trilateral meetings between August and December 2023. Mechanisms put in place at the Camp David Summit in August 2023 were finalized, as countries established a multi-year military exercise plan and a joint alert system for any potential threats. In response to a missile launch by North Korea in December 2023, the United States held trilateral military drills with South Korea and Japan that included U.S. long-range bombers and fighter jets from both allies. 

By all accounts, Japan and South Korea have made exceptional strides as leaders have aligned security interests, enabling integrated assurance that develops the human and military domain at the tactical and operational level.

Competitors, Together 

Unlike many other multinational exercises, the Thai-led Cobra Gold exercise brings competitors together for civic assistance and HA/DR. During the civic assistance project, American, Thai, Malaysian, and Chinese engineers worked together to erect a new multi-purpose facility at a local school in Prachinburi province. Service members spent the bulk of their days constructing the facility and engaged in cultural events at night to build understanding and comradery. In military units that are often insular, these exchanges provided the soldiers with an appreciation for the complexity of cultural differences and commonalities.

The U.S. component was led by First Lt. Tyler Clarke, an Army Reserve officer from 871st Engineer Company in Hawaii. Clarke has been a carpenter for years and was grateful for the experience. Reflecting on the project, Clarke said “There was an eagerness or excitement from everyone that I wasn’t expecting, to get to know each other and work together, especially among the junior enlisted. I think there was an unspoken awareness of how rare of an opportunity it was for these soldiers to work side by side, and they genuinely wanted to get to know one another.”

Isolated as they were to a small village in Thailand, service members from all four countries built bonds through shared experience, away from the weight of political tensions that burden the strategic level and hinder collaboration.

For Thailand, a security ally of the United States that has a close economic relationship with China, such events underscore the value of engaging in collaboration, wherever possible. Unlike during the Cold War, which had clear lines of distinction between adversaries and allies, the great power competition of today operates in a more ambiguous environment where partners often hedge their interests between competitors. At the construction site, the interactions between Chinese soldiers and U.S. allies highlighted the dynamics of balancing relationships and extending opportunities to work together.

While Cobra Gold is coordinated by Thailand, it represents an increased opening in the lines of communications between the U.S. and PRC. Communication between competitors is critical to de-escalate conflict and coordinate in a crisis or HA/DR environment within the region.

Enduring Engagements by SOF, SFABs, and SPPs

Beyond and behind these large multinational exercises are enduring bilateral engagements by special operations forces, Security Force Assistance Brigades, and the State Partnership Program, which pairs individual U.S. state national guards with foreign partners.

Special operations forces (SOFs) have contributed a significant amount to security cooperation through their dedicated focus on foreign internal defense (FID). They have maintained the lead in conducting the military portion of FID and conduct engagements worldwide. Within Cobra Gold, U.S. special operations forces conducted combined training with Thai special forces and the Japanese Special Operations Group.

In Thailand, the First Special Forces Group works closely with the Royal Thai Army Special Warfare Schoolhouse to advise and assist. Enduring engagements by units like SOFs demonstrate trust and commitment to integrated assurance.

Likewise, Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) maintain a persistent presence with partner forces that transcends annual exercises and events. The 5th SFAB has been assisting Royal Thai Army Stryker units after receiving new vehicles at the Non-Commissioned Officer’s Academy and the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.

Integration at key development schools and with operational units builds generational assurance to U.S. military support. Maintaining continuous touchpoints with counterparts enables large military exercises. Lessons learned in one year can be re-trained and emphasized through enduring engagements, so units are better prepared and operating at a higher level by the next year.

Multinational civilian and military groups prepare for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Photo provided by Cody Chick.

Working in tandem with Cobra Gold, the State Partnership Program (SPP) increases security cooperation by regional emphasis. During Cobra Gold, the Washington State National Guard took the lead as the U.S. representatives in the HA/DR demonstration. Unlike conventional military units whose leaders change every one to three years, National Guard units allow for long-term relations between military leaders, adding another layer to integrated assurance. Col. Michael Ake, the chief of staff for the Washington State National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, has interfaced with his Thai partners in Cobra Gold for the past 14 years. 

In response to the SPP’s unique role, Ake said “Our [Nation Guard] service members have a broad level of expertise and experience from their civilian occupations that is value added to any mission- particularly in the HA/DR lines of effort.” 

One clear demonstration of the SPP’s potential can be drawn from Europe. Like SOFs, the National Guard had a consistent role through SPP in training with Ukrainian forces prior to the Russian invasion in 2022.

Enduring engagements are critical to understanding regional challenges and supporting military-to-military relations. In Thailand, U.S. Special Forces have close ties with SOF partners through more than 50 years of engagements; meanwhile, the 5th SFAB and the SPP have provided means for conventional units to establish consistency towards integrated assurance. Improving interoperability is done at the technical, operational, and human levels but must be in conjunction with integrated assurance and a shared understanding. Increased engagements can also lead to foreign military sales, ultimately feeding increased interoperability and diversified placement for certain equipment in the circumstance of denied logistics. 


Exercise Cobra Gold provides a platform for regional partners to build military cooperation and interoperability to foster integrated assurance. The United States utilizes combined exercises and enduring engagements as key components to campaigning within the Indo-Pacific. Integrated assurance provides credibility, commitment and resolve to partners and allies, directly tying into the ability to build cohesive coalitions that effectively deter. Constant campaigning through the Indo-Pacific at joint and multinational levels facilitates constant partner touchpoints along with units that maintain a persistent presence with host nations. While tactical in nature, each engagement over time builds generational trust and equity, and brings regional partners to the table that share larger strategic aims.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. 

Guest Author

Xavier Brunson

Lt.-Gen. Xavier Brunson is the commanding general of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Previously, he commanded the 7th Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He entered active duty in 1990 and has commanded at multiple levels in both conventional and special operations forces in combat. He holds two master’s degrees, one in human resources development and the other in national security and policy.

Guest Author

Cody Chick

Maj. Cody Chick is a Major in the United States Army and a graduate from The Citadel with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.  He is currently a candidate for a MS degree in Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.