A Cobra Gold of old please
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A Cobra Gold of old please

Interview: Next year's exercise should be back to normal after Covid-19 forced a slimming down, says the Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command. By Wassana Nanuam

The Cobra Gold military exercise, co-sponsored by Thailand and the United States is expected to be held as a full-scale drill next year after it was scaled down this year due to the spread of Covid-19 infections, says Adm John Aquilino, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post during his Oct 10-13 official visit to Thailand as a guest of the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF), Adm Aquilino says he wants to see Thailand and the US to join hands in ensuring Cobra Gold goes back to normal next year, with a full-scale exercise and more troops from different countries taking part.

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, the number of US army personnel participating in the exercise during Aug 3-13 fell to just 600 participants.

Over the past 10 years, the number of US army personnel participating in Cobra Gold has fallen from 10,000 to around 6,000-7,000 each year in a "heavy" training year, and 4,000 in "light" years. The amphibious landing exercise, normally set at Sattahip beach in Chon Buri, was cancelled this year. There was a separate field training exercise between the units instead.

Cobra Gold is one of the world's longest-running international exercises. It also supports a free and open Indo-Pacific and ensures effective responses to regional crises. It is the largest multinational military exercise in Southeast Asia.

Cobra Gold 2022

Adm Aquilino says the next exercise will be held in February.

"We'll execute it in a way that meets the needs, desires and restrictions for Covid-19 as determined by Chief of Defence Forces of the Royal Thai Armed Forces [Chalermpol Srisawat].

"Together we'll work to get it back to normal as soon as possible. And in the future hopefully [we can] expand the training complexity of the exercise and potentially even increase the nations participating.

"It'll be up to the [Thai] chief of the defence forces' consideration to see which other countries will join the exercise. He and I will collaborate [together],'' he said.

After Cobra Gold 2022 is back to normal, he would like to see it to expand further in 2023.  (continued below)

Adm John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, at his interview with the 'Bangkok Post' where he underscored the importance of the Cobra Gold drill, which is expected to resume as a full-scale exercise next year. (Photos: Pornprom Satrabhaya and Apichart Jinakul)

When it comes to more regional security cooperation, he said whenever Thailand is comfortable to receive warships, he will send them to visit Thailand.

"I spoke with both the prime minister [Prayut Chan-o-cha] and Gen Chalermpol and told my navy sailors look forward to coming back to Thailand as soon as possible. But I don't know for sure yet which ships will sail here. We'll plan for port visits and also a sailing plan,'' he said.

Asked about a possible confrontation between the US and China in the South China Sea, he said he and Gen Chalermpol wanted to ensure peace, prosperity, and stability for all countries in the region.

"The alliance between Thailand and the US is a very important part of ensuring that we keep the peace and stability across the region.

"Thais should be comfortable knowing the [Thai] chief of defence forces and I are coordinating together," Adm Aquilino said.

Adm Aquilino is the 26th Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, the nation's oldest and largest combatant command.

USINDOPACOM includes 380,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, guardians, coast guardsmen and Department of Defence civilians and is responsible for all US military activities in the Indo-Pacific, covering 36 nations, 14 time zones, and more than 50% of the world's population.

Health cooperation

The cooperation between USINDOPACOM and the RTAF is not only limited to the military but also covers the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adm Aquilino said he met Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul on Tuesday to acknowledge cooperation in fighting the virus between Thailand and the US.

Under this cooperation, the US has donated 200 refrigeration units to Thailand, which will be used to store vaccines. In addition, the US is donating over 2.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Thailand.

Talks about Thailand visit

Adm Aquilino said Thailand was the first country that he wanted to visit after he took the position of commander in May. But the Covid-19 situation forced him to postpone the trip.

"I'm happy to be back in Thailand; it was important for me to see Gen Chalermpol. We've had a couple of virtual engagements and my travel plan when I took over this command was to come to Thailand first,'' he said.

He said Thailand and the US have had a special relationship for more than 200 years.

"I'd been to Thailand many times when I was a fleet commander," he said. "Thailand is one of my favourite places in the region. I have been to Phuket and Bangkok.

"Next time I may visit Chiang Mai if I have a chance. I have friends here in Thailand and during this trip, I've made even more friends.

"I look forward to coming back very soon to have additional talks with the chief of the defence force and I enjoy it every chance I get to come back."

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