RAYONG PROVINCE, Thailand – The 42nd iteration of Exercise Cobra Gold ran from Feb. 28 to March 10, 2023, in the Kingdom of Thailand, with multiple nations coming together to train and promote regional peace and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The annual Thai-U.S. co-sponsored training event built on the long-standing friendship between the two allied nations and featured multinational training on joint military operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as well as cultural exchanges and civic action programs, such as construction projects in local communities.
“Cobra Gold 23 strengthens our ability to plan and conduct combined, joint, high-end security and peacekeeping operations across all domains,” said U.S. Navy Adm. Chris Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “Through Cobra Gold, we demonstrate our resolve to respond together to future challenges, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific where all nations can prosper.”
This year’s exercise was the largest in recent years, with more than 7,000 service members from seven full participating nations: the Kingdom of Thailand, United States, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea. More than 20 other nations also attended as observers, planners or limited participants in select events, such as humanitarian civic action programs, defensive cyber training and disaster response exercises.
“All this is being done with a host of partners,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, commanding general of the U.S. Army’s I Corps, which served as a U.S. joint task force (JTF) headquarters for the exercise.
“Cobra Gold builds relationships and enhances capabilities of all the nations that come together by being together and talking about everything from the tactical level, with soldiers on the ground executing marksmanship training, all the way up to the operational level, with the staff exercise where we talk about how we would execute different types of missions together,” said U.S. Army Col. Brandon Teague, I Corps chief of staff.
Major events during Cobra Gold fell within three main lines of effort: multinational joint field training, multi-domain command and control exercises and various humanitarian activities.
Joint Field Training with Allies and Partners
Several field training events took place simultaneously during Cobra Gold, enhancing multinational interoperability and readiness for a range of military operations across multiple domains. This included various small-unit training events focused on tactics, jungle survival skills, marksmanship and weapons familiarization. There were also several key culminating events – some occurring simultaneously – in which U.S. joint forces integrated closely with allies and partners for large-scale operations.
U.S. Army Paratroopers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team “Falcons,” 82nd Airborne Division worked with the Royal Thai Army to execute a strategic airborne operation, air assault and follow-on ground mission. Beginning from a base on the island of Diego Garcia, a combined force of approximately 600 Royal Thai and American paratroopers flew over 2,000 miles aboard multiple U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft, conducted in-flight rigging of their parachutes and jumped into Thanarat Drop Zone, Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, on March 3.
“Training with our Thai counterparts was very fluid,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Nickolas Howes, a squad leader in the Falcon Brigade. “We adapted very easily…Every interaction I had, we were talking like old friends.”
Around the same time, some 70 miles east across the Gulf of Thailand, an amphibious exercise brought together Navy and Marine forces from the Kingdom of Thailand, United States and Republic of Korea (ROK) – who all converged on Hat Yao Beach in Chon Buri Province. Reconnaissance Marines from the U.S. and Kingdom of Thailand inserted first, followed by Assault Amphibious Vehicles carrying a larger force of Royal Thai and Republic of Korea Marines. Finally, U.S. and Republic of Korea Marines reinforced the beachhead with support from a U.S. Navy Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC), a Republic of Korea Navy Tank Landing Ship, and Royal Thai Navy S-70B Seahawk helicopter.
The U.S. landing force came from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked aboard the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group.
In another near simultaneous event, Royal Thai, U.S. and ROK Marines conducted a combined air assault exercise, flying in on MV-22 Ospreys and CH-53E Super Stallions helicopters and rapidly securing an airfield to ensure freedom of movement for follow-on forces.
These synchronized training events offered valuable experience not only for the units on the ground, but also for those responsible for command and control of Cobra Gold’s joint operations across vast distances and multiple domains – land, air, maritime, space and cyberspace.
“We have been able to link operations in this chain, and that allows us to not only conduct the operations, but to assess the effects and continue operating,” said Brunson. “In the past, these operations have happened in almost a discrete fashion,” as mostly separate events independent of one another. This year, however, the joint task force headquarters purposefully integrated these events – amphibious, airborne, air assault and other operations – and treated them as part of one synchronized larger operation.
This allowed I Corps, as the JTF headquarters, to practice real-world command and control by integrating joint capabilities and synchronizing these complex operations across all domains.
Other bilateral and multilateral field training took place throughout the exercise.
Artillery units gained valuable live-fire experience, enhancing their ability to rapidly deliver precision long-range firepower in support of allies and partners. A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Rapid Infiltration, or HIRAIN, brought together U.S. Army Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 17th Field Artillery Brigade, U.S. Marine Corps Artillery Marines with 3d Battalion, 12th Marines, the U.S. Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Wing and the Royal Thai Armed Forces.
During this March 6 HIRAIN in Lop Buri Province, under command and control of the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division, operations commenced with a Thai-U.S. air assault, supported by 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, to secure an airfield. Once the area was secure, HIMARS crews conducted rapid infiltration, deployment, and displacement out of a U.S. Air Force C-130H. HIRAINs allow commanders to increase their options for long-range artillery employment and drastically increase the maneuverability and survivability of artillery systems.
U.S. Army mortar teams and M777 155mm howitzer crews from 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), 7th Inf. Div., also trained alongside Royal Thai Army counterparts, learning and training on each other’s weapon systems.
At the Nong Krachong Shooting Range in Rayong Province, U.S. Marines with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Royal Thai Marines and Royal Thai Navy SEALs competed with one another on a set of ranges from March 4 to 9. Service members tested their traditional marksmanship skills as well as a combat marksmanship range, which places an emphasis on tactical proficiency with a dynamic range of drills, such as speed reloading and hitting moving targets.
Throughout Cobra Gold, U.S. service members learned valuable information about jungle survival from their Royal Thai counterparts, who taught U.S. Soldiers and Marines how to scavenge for food in the jungle and establish shelters, while also familiarizing them with the wildlife of the region.
Cobra Gold 23’s culminating field training event was a combined arms live-fire exercise (CALFEX), where participants from the Kingdom of Thailand, U.S., Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia worked together to seize an objective along with follow-on targets and defeat a counterattack with joint fires. The event combined a diverse spectrum of military operations including High-Altitude Low-Opening jumps from Malaysian and Singaporean Special Forces, Royal Thai Army sniper teams, U.S. Marine Corps HIMARS, U.S. Army AH-64 Apaches from 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, U.S. Army M777 towed 155mm howitzers from 1-2 SBCT, U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, and Stryker armored vehicles operating together in support of a unified mission: breaching enemy obstacles and seizing two key positions through a series of fire and maneuver.
U.S. command and control for the CALFEX, airborne operations and other U.S. Army field training came from I Corps’ 7th Inf. Div., which served as the Army force headquarters, or ARFOR, during Cobra Gold.
Additional support to Cobra Gold 23 came from a wide range of joint partners.
The U.S., Royal Thai, and Republic of Korea navies supported naval and amphibious operations throughout Cobra Gold, with participation from the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8), Royal Thai Navy landing platform dock HTMS Angthong (LPD 791), Republic of Korea Navy tank landing ship ROKS Il Chul Bong (LST 688), and landing transport dock USS John P. Murtha, as well as multiple aircraft, ships and landing craft supporting the March 3 amphibious assault and other exercises. Additionally, U.S. Navy Patrol Squadron (VP) 10 dispatched Combat Aircrew (CAC) 3 and a maintenance support team to Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, employing the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to provide support during the amphibious assault exercise.
Air Force integration was on display, as F-16 Fighting Falcons from the U.S. and Royal Thai Air Forces flew over 130 sorties throughout the exercise, strengthening interoperability between the two nations. The U.S. fighters came from 36th Fighter Squadron, part of 51st Fighter Wing. Airlift support was provided by multiple C-17 cargo aircraft from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina; and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Additionally, C-130 cargo aircraft from both nations performed dozens of sorties in support of Cobra Gold, helping rapidly deploy troops and equipment, such as during the HIRAIN exercise.
Special operations units also trained together in support of Cobra Gold, including Royal Thai Armed Forces Special Operations, Royal Thai and U.S. Navy Special Warfare Commands, U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Special Operations Detachment-Pacific from the Washington Army National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force 353rd Special Operations Wing.
Multinational, Multi-Domain Command and Control Exercises
Members of participating nations not only worked together on a tactical level to carry out field training, but leaders and planners gathered to discuss and practice the planning stages of multinational operations across multiple domains – including space and cyber. This year’s staff exercises featured an operational preparation of the environment, a command and control exercise, a cyber exercise and a combined space forces coordination center.
At this year’s cyber exercise, participants broke into teams by country and prepared to defend cyber assets through the assessment of threats, the development and implementation of incident response plans and the sharing of knowledge between teams.
“This year, we have 116 participants from eight nations,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Silves, cyber exercise director and member of the Washington Air National Guard. “Opening the aperture to understand that there is more than just military networks, and that we may be called on to support our partners, helps to broaden our skillset and gives us the opportunity to practice here in an exercise as opposed to learning to do that on the fly.”
This was the inaugural year integrating the space domain into Cobra Gold, with a space planning team of 18 personnel from four nations. This team successfully planned space capabilities to support the multinational force.
“The activities increased our shared understanding of what constitutes safe and responsible space activities and how to contribute to a more stable space environment by reducing the risk of miscalculation,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chad Briggs, space exercise coordinator and commander of Hawaii Air National Guard Detachment 1.
Within the exercise environment, the team proposed space coordination mechanisms between the Space Operations Centers in Thailand, Japan, and the U.S.
Next year’s exercise will offer an opportunity to expand participation, Briggs said, further strengthening space cooperation with allies and partners.
Humanitarian Assistance: Training to Help Others
Cobra Gold’s humanitarian assistance / disaster relief operations this year included both conceptual, tabletop planning workshops and also practical demonstrations on the ground.
The HA/DR Tabletop Exercise (TTX) took place Feb. 24 to 26, with participation from eight nations. Multiple international organizations also took part, including the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, International Federation of the Red Cross, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ASEAN Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and others.
Approximately 100 TTX participants met in person for the first time since 2019 and exchanged ideas on preparing for HA/DR scenarios.
“This year’s tabletop has the largest group of participants,” said Britton London, Sr., advisor and exercise planner from the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. “It was exciting to see the eager participation by all nations who have a lot of experience responding to several types of disasters. The questions asked were designed to get the multinational teams to think of solutions together, and to share experiences to learn and grow.”
Following these conceptual discussions on how to prepare for a humanitarian crisis, service members from participating nations met at the Disaster Relief Training Center in Chachoengsao Province from Feb. 28 to March 3 for practical demonstrations of HA/DR operations, including search and rescue, emergency medical services, medical evacuation, hazardous materials decontamination, and firefighting. At a Multinational Coordination Center, service members worked together to process emergency calls and dispatch resources shared between nations to respond as quickly as possible alongside the Kingdom of Thailand’s civilian first responders.
“The demonstration focused specifically on civilian response and military integration in support of civilian first responders,” said U.S. Army Col. Stan Seo, plans officer for the Washington National Guard. “The Multinational Coordination Center is designed to integrate foreign militaries into a theater of operations. Their job is to coordinate between all militaries, and our goal is to inform and resource gaps that a host nation may not have, and to fill those gaps with military assets.”
A combined task force from Japan, the U.S. and Kingdom of Thailand worked together March 4 and 5 to practice non-combatant evacuation operations and the rescue of Japanese nationals overseas (NEO/RJNO). Service members from the three nations set up an evacuation control center on Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield to process the entry and evacuation of approximately 180 actors portraying civilian non-combatants from Japan and elsewhere. Actors were screened by medical services before undergoing simulated decontamination of any harmful chemicals or pathogens. Afterwards, they were escorted to awaiting aircraft and evacuated from the area.
Humanitarian efforts during Cobra Gold often extend beyond training and directly protect and benefit local communities throughout the Kingdom of Thailand.
During a bilateral explosive ordnance reduction event in Surin Province, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians from the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army and Royal Thai Armed Forces, together with the Thailand Mine Action Center, safely disposed of more than 8,500 pounds of unexploded ordnance and explosive remnants of war found in the region. These EOD experts worked side-by-side at Ta Mor Roi Training area to conduct explosive ordnance disposal operations and exchange advanced technical skills to safely eliminate explosive dangers and remnants of war – helping protect those living in surrounding areas.
“The time together has produced strong personal relationships between 3d MLG, 13th MEU, USARPAC, Royal Thai Armed Forces, Thai Police EOD, and Thai Border Patrol Police, in turn strengthening the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Thailand,” said U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Kuhns, the Humanitarian Mine Action EOD officer-in-charge.
Another annual highlight of Cobra Gold’s humanitarian efforts is the Engineering Civic Action Program (ENCAP), and this year’s exercise featured six separate ENCAP project sites throughout Thailand. Multinational military engineers from nine nations worked together to build classrooms and multipurpose rooms for communities in the Rayong, Lop Buri, Sa Kaeo and Chanthaburi Provinces. Each project was completed over the course of one month, starting in early Feb., with dedication ceremonies all taking place before the conclusion of Cobra Gold on March 10.
“While here, we are building relationships with our Thai counterparts and displaying our ability to work with other nations, while at the same time bringing a much-needed multipurpose building to the school,” said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan Stancil, ENCAP Site 5 officer-in-charge (Ban Bua Chum School, Lop Buri Province), assigned to the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron. “We have 22 (Royal Thai Air Force) engineers, 14 (U.S. Air Force) civil engineers, one USAF independent duty medical technician and five Indian Army personnel working on this project, and the working relationship has been great.”
New Cultures, Connections and Friendships
Beyond the multinational military training and humanitarian projects, a highlight of Cobra Gold for many service members came from the opportunity to experience new cultures, form new friendships and in some cases even reconnect with old friends and family.
Some service members experienced Thai food for the first time. For instance, those based at Camp Red Horse in Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, where the multinational command and control exercises were held, enjoyed a daily variety of favorite Thai dishes from local food vendors, including phat kaphrao, pad thai and fresh local fruits.
Some experienced other proud elements of Thai culture. U.S. Soldiers in Lop Buri were treated to a Muay Thai training session with Thai champion fighter Buakaw Banchemak on March 5. Muay Thai is central to Thailand’s athletic culture and is required self-defense training in the Royal Thai Army.
Buakaw, himself an officer in the Royal Thai Army, also performed the Wai Khru ceremony alongside members of the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and Royal Thai Army. The Wai Khru is a ritual performed by Muay Thai fighters before a match to show respect to their coaches. During the ceremony, Buakaw exchanged Thai Mangos and Washington apples with U.S. Army Col. J. Todd Burroughs, commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Cobra Gold produced many new friendships, but it also gave old friends a chance to reconnect.
U.S. Army Capt. David Lane, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, reconnected in Thailand with his old friend and classmate, Capt. Sittipat Maingiw of the Royal Thai Army 711th Field Artillery Battalion. The officers had met one year earlier in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, as classmates in the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Captain’s Career Course.
“As soon as I learned that we were going to the Kingdom of Thailand, I sent him a message,” Lane said. As they reconnected, they also worked to strengthen interoperability and bonds between their field artillery units. Together, they prepared a capabilities brief to educate the U.S. and Royal Thai field artillery personnel on one another’s tactics and procedures: differences, similarities, and how the two units could support and learn from one another.
“It was great seeing and working with [Maingiw] again and working through this training together and building a better rapport,” Lane said. “No one knows everything, and working with our partner forces through [Maingiw] is a great way to learn more.”
For some American service members, Cobra Gold was part exercise and part homecoming.
U.S. Army Pfc. Taddanai Rungpetchanan, a native of the Kingdom of Thailand and now an information technology specialist with the 51st Expeditionary Signal Battalion, was born in a town not far from where he was deployed as part of Cobra Gold.
“It feels surreal. I never imagined I would be back here as an American Soldier,” Rungpetchanan said. “I would like to thank the Army for allowing me to be here. I am grateful to travel and see my Grandma.”
Rungpetchanan is on his first deployment with the Army as part of Cobra Gold, providing IT support but also serving as an unofficial translator and cultural ambassador for his native country, teaching his fellow U.S. Soldiers about Thai culture, customs and courtesies.
“I used my ability to translate to bring the Royal Thai Army and the U.S. together to break down walls between our different cultures,” he said.
He was not the only Thai-born U.S. Soldier returning to the Kingdom of Thailand for Cobra Gold.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Apisit Meejaiyen, assigned to 9th Mission Support Command, grew up in Thailand’s Rayong Province, before moving to America in his early teens. Now, he is a two-time veteran of Cobra Gold.
In 2022, Meejaiyen served as officer-in-charge of an ENCAP construction site in his very own Rayong Province, less than an hour’s drive from where he grew up.
“Knowing that what I helped build could make a difference in the community, I am proud to be an American Soldier,” he said.
This year, Meejaiyen served as part of Cobra Gold’s Combined Joint Information Bureau, visiting ENCAP sites and cultural events to assist with local engagements and Thai-language interviews. He was also able to revisit his hometown and see family and friends.
His favorite Cobra Gold experience this year was being able to attend the Muay Thai training with Buakaw in Lop Buri, and also getting to see some of the same Royal Thai soldiers that he worked with last year.
“It’s a dream mission,” Meejaiyen said. “Cobra Gold inspired me to be a Soldier, and the U.S. Army Reserve gave me the opportunity to make an impact so close to where I came from.”
Cobra Gold is an annual Thai-U.S. co-sponsored training event that builds on the long-standing friendship between the two allied nations and brings together a robust multinational force to promote regional peace and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. This year, 2023, marks the 42nd iteration of the exercise, as well as 190 years of formal diplomatic relations between the two nations and almost seven decades as security treaty allies.