CAMP MURRAY, Wash. - For more than 20 years, the Washington National Guard has watched its partnership with the Kingdom of Thailand grow and mature through countless conversations, exchanges and training opportunities.
“These things don’t just happen; they take time,” said Lt. Col. Keith Kosik, director of the Washington National Guard’s State Partnership Program. “This is what makes the program special. We can develop relationships, not just over a few months, but through years of continued engagement.”
In February and March, the relationship strengthened as more than 500 Washington National Guard members participated in engagements, exchanges and exercises across the Southeast Asian country.
With Washington and Thailand facing severe wildland fire seasons, the Washington National Guard and Royal Thai Army held a virtual wildland fire management discussion with the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Royal Thai Forestry Department. The one-day exchange covered fire operations, weather forecasting and incident weather, fuels mitigation, prescribed burning, risk mitigation and public information operations.
“The Washington National Guard wildland firefighting exchange team is hopeful that this builds relationships and opportunities in the future,” said Col. Amanda Doyle, team lead for the exchange. “Thailand and Washington have several similarities in the impacts of wildfires on the economy, public opinion and safety within our borders. Any chance we have to share information and learn from each other is beneficial.”
As the wildland fire training wrapped up, Guard members from Joint Force Headquarters and 96th Troop Command joined their Royal Thai Armed Forces counterparts for a multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training in Rayong Province. The event was part of Cobra Gold, a Thai-U.S. exercise held annually in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Service members from participating nations conducted hands-on operations, including search and rescue, emergency medical services, medical evacuation, hazardous materials decontamination, and firefighting.
“The scale of natural disasters tends to be increasing and involves more and more people,” said Washington National Guard Warrant Officer Kristen Retherford, a decontamination adviser with the 10th Homeland Response Force. “We have to get used to helping each other and responding to this stuff so we all have a shared understanding of the system and how to work together no matter what language.”
While much of Cobra Gold focuses on the physical, cyberspace exercises provide real-world experience for participants.
“The goal for the cyberspace exercise is to provide a quality experience for operators where they can build or strengthen defensive skills and share information with partners,” said Lt. Col. Jason Silves, Washington Air National Guard.
Silves hopes to link parts of Cobra Gold into the cyber exercise, demonstrating how the physical world affects cyberspace operations and vice versa.
“Each of these initiatives is designed to help commanders and operators understand how intertwined the physical and virtual worlds really are,” said Silves. “By doing so, we can help everyone understand that a virtual problem can be solved in the physical or kinetic world or how a physical problem could be addressed in the virtual world.”
The command post and staff exercise, held at Camp Red Horse, Utapao, Kingdom of Thailand, tested the abilities of leaders and staff from participating nations to plan multinational operations across multiple domains.
Participants planned missions, reacted to unforeseen events and worked toward a common goal. Nations participating included the Kingdom of Thailand, the United States, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
“I always enjoy working with our different coalition counterparts as it brings different perspectives on how to address a specific problem set,” said Maj. Taihei Hongo, an information officer with the Washington National Guard.
While these focused on the senior leader and staff level, Capt. Ken. Pfeifle and Bear Company, 3rd Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, focused on the tactical level with their Royal Thai Army counterparts.
“The Soldiers were partnered with a Royal Thai Army platoon throughout the two-week exercise. One week was dedicated to urban training and one to jungle training,” said Pfeifle. “Although each day had its individual training objectives, the ‘big picture goal’ was to build interoperability with the Royal Thai Army and solidify our partnership, building the lasting bonds of friendship.”
Guard members conducted military operations in urban terrain, short-range marksmanship, counter-improvised explosive device training and room clearing and took part in a Thai-led combat field exercise. Jungle training consisted of a squad tactical exercise, knocking out a bunker, clearing a wire obstacle, and tactical combat casualty care, weapons knowledge exchange, a known-distance range, and the bilateral squad live-fire exercise.
After a nearly four-year hiatus from visiting SPP partners in the Kingdom of Thailand and Malaysia, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general, returned to Southeast Asia for the first time since 2019.
“Due to COVID-19 shutdowns and a number of other factors, it has been hard to get back to see our partners in the region,” said Daugherty. “It was good to get back to the area and to talk with them.”
In March 2020, as the world went through lockdowns, the Washington National Guard had to find other ways to engage with partners in Thailand and Malaysia. Through virtual engagements and bilateral affairs officers in the region, the Washington National Guard, the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Malaysian Armed Forces continued to conduct subject matter exchanges and leader engagements.
“Our partnerships with Thailand and Malaysia are very critical to our national defense strategy,” said Daugherty. “Continuous engagement with them both is value-added to our goals and security.”
The Washington National Guard has also partnered with the Royal Thai Armed Forces on air defense exchanges.
“During our most recent visit to the Kingdom of Thailand, we had the opportunity to work with the Royal Thai Air Force on air defense and air sovereignty,” said Col. Ricardo Camel, commander of the 225th Air Defense Group, WADS. “Since 2016, WADS has conducted numerous Airman-to-Airman talks and subject matter expert exchanges to include datalink and air defense best practices.”
The tactical exchange, led by Maj. Blake Fair, WADS senior director, covered joint tactical communications standards, offensive and defensive counter air planning principles and range training officer procedures. The exchange also provided a tactical perspective in the lead-up to exercise Cope Tiger, which the RTAF executed afterward.
The last exchange to conclude the busy month in the Kingdom of Thailand was the return of Washington Army National Guard aviation to Lop Buri and the Thai Aviation Headquarters.
“The aviation subject matter expert exchange provided a chance to discuss and share best practices in aviation standardization, maintenance, tech supply and logistics,” said 1st Lt. Taylor Payne, commander of headquarters company, 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation and state airlift coordinator.
Since 2011, Washington National Guard aviation crews have partnered with the RTA to conduct subject matter exchanges. The primary focus is assisting Thai aviators in developing a proficient flight program.
“Getting the chance to work side by side with our Thai counterparts, both aviators and maintainers from the 9th Aviation Battalion, RTA was great,” said Payne.
“The Washington National Guard is on pace to conduct more SPP engagements this year than in any other year in our program’s history. We have recovered from the pandemic and moved into the next chapter of our relationship with Thailand and Malaysia,” said Kosik.