“Courtesy of Surface SITREP. Republished with the permission of the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).”
Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN (Ret.): What’s important about the Asia-Pacific area of operations (AOR), and how does your command fit into the “rebalance” to the Pacific, or the so-called “Pacific Pivot.”
Rear Adm. Charlie Williams: Looking strategically at the AOR, the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is on the rise; it’s become the nexus of the global economy. Almost 60 percent of the world’s GDP comes from the Indo-Asia-Pacific nations, amounting to almost half of global trade, and most of that commerce runs through the vital shipping lanes of this region.
Moreover, more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and many people reside and make their living in or near the littorals of these nations. I would also say that as a Pacific nation, the United States and in particular, the U.S. Navy, enjoys fruitful and enduring security partnerships with many countries throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific. And here in Singapore, my team is fortunate to play a significant role in enhancing maritime security relationships with partner nations throughout Southeast Asia. As the Commander of Task Force 73, working directly for Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, the 7th Fleet Commander, we focus on Theater Security Cooperation with all of our partners and allies in Southeast and South Asia. Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) is a long-standing bi-lateral exercise series, started almost 21 years ago with six countries, and it’s now expanded through the last several years to include ten countries. We see the broad spectrum of naval capabilities applied to these exercises. For each country we tailor what we bring in CARAT to the needs and capacity of our partners. Here in Singapore, CARAT Singapore is a robust varsity-level exercise. It typically features live-fire, surface-to-air missiles and ASW torpedo exercises and we benefit and gain great value from these engagements. With other CARAT partner nations, we focus our training on maritime interdiction operations, or humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and make it more applicable to the country’s needs and desires. Another exercise that compliments CARAT, yet with a very different focus, is SEACAT (Southeast Asia Cooperation And Training). The exercise includes the U.S. and six Southeast Asian nations to include Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
It’s essentially a command post exercise with a multilateral focus, with nations working side-by-side and flexing their information sharing abilities with tactics and security cooperation. CARAT and SEACAT are all part of our engagement focus, and along with the DESRON 7 team and LCS forward presence, they represent tangible manifestations of the rebalance in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Part of the rebalance is also focused on bringing the latest technology and greatest capabilities to the 7th Fleet, and we are witnessing this throughout the region with the emergence of new naval platforms and modern equipment. Our bilateral and multilateral engagements continue to flourish as we enhance relationships and trust with our allies and partners in the region. With DESRON 7, and the presence of our LCS, along with the routine presence in this region of Forward Deployed Navy Forces from Japan, we have the right people and platforms in place when it matters, and where it matters, and this allows us to enhance our security partnerships with nations throughout Southeast Asia.
How has LCS been received?
LCS has been embraced by our partners in the region. Every nation that we are operating with wants Fort Worth and LCS to come to their country and participate in the exercise. Size-wise, crew size, and capabilities – LCS is a very appropriate ship for engagement in Southeast Asia.
How does Fort Worth compare to the Freedom deployment?
Freedom was very successful, but she had some engineering reliability challenges that we saw that resulted in her not being able to make a couple of commitments. I would describe her deployment as a proof-of concept and a first deployment of a new ship class. We’ve had great collaboration between our “man, train, and equip” side, as well as the operational elements, examining together the lessons learned, and going down the list and making sure that we did not repeat the same mistakes. So Fort Worth’s deployment now is a great contrast to Freedom’s deployment in terms of her reliability and readiness. For example, at the beginning of Fort Worth’s 16-month rotational deployment, she left San Diego for Hawaii, then to Guam and into Jakarta, Indonesia, before sailing to Singapore. She arrived here on 29 December, which was the day after the Air Asia flight went down in the Java Sea. She had a long-planned maintenance period scheduled for 2 January already in place. For quite obvious reasons, we delayed that maintenance and turned Fort Worth around, than placed a mobile dive and salvage unit and capability on board Fort Worth, and she got underway and headed straight to the Java Sea, and in less than 24 hours was reporting for duty, and ready to conduct search and rescue operations. It’s a great example of the reliability, because we were able to delay that maintenance until she came back almost two weeks later. Additionally in terms in terms of readiness and presence, when we commenced the Air Asia operation, we actually had USS Sampson (DDG 102) here in Singapore, as well, conducting routine operations in the region. This provided two ships that were here in Singapore, ready to respond with the right people and the right capabilities, and we had a full-up, fully capable destroyer squadron that was able to take command of those two ships and the operation. As a former DESRON 15 commander myself, in Yokosuka, Japan, I have a keen appreciation for those times when it would have been beneficial to have a second DESRON in Southeast Asia able to take care of something that is geographically far away.
Another notable milestone was Fort Worth’s presence in Northeast Asia for participation in Exercise Foal Eagle 2015 in Korea and her bilateral training with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). This also gave us the opportunity for Fort Worth to conduct routine maintenance in Sasebo, a first for the LCS in Northeast Asia. This was significant because we expanded the operational reach of the LCS into Northeast Asia and we were able to see the full potential that the LCS platform can provide for our allies and partners across the region. Our goal for Fort Worth’s deployment has really been to “normalize” two things: normalize LCS’s presence in 7th Fleet, and also to normalize how we treat Fort Worth, like any other 3rd Fleet deployer that comes into 7th Fleet for operations. And I think it’s been very successful.
What’s the future for LCS deployments here?
Think ahead to 2018 with DESRON 7, and the four LCS ships that are slated to be rotationally deployed to Singapore. It’s plausible that we could see two Freedom-class and two Independence-class ships as deployers. I can envision a time during any month out of the year where we have one of those ships doing an exercise in South Asia, perhaps with the Indian Navy or Bangladesh Navy. We would probably have one of the ships here in Singapore for maintenance. Additionally, with four ships rotationally deployed to this region, I think the math works out that we’ll have a crew swap happening here in Singapore every month. Then perhaps there would be a third LCS in the South China Sea doing a routine patrol, like the one Fort Worth just completed, and perhaps a fourth LCS in Northeast Asia working with either the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), or with the Republic of Korea (ROK).
That’s just a few years from now. Our partners in the region are aware of these deployments and I think they see it as a positive development, because we’ve certainly been talking about the fact that we’re going to have four ships here in the future.
It’s just another demonstration of the presence and commitment on behalf of the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
How does having a dedicated DESRON help with our engagement strategy?
There was great work being done through the CARAT vehicle previously, but as we deployed very busy DESRONs from California or Hawaii, the engagement was a little bit more episodic. But now that we have a dedicated DESRON in Southeast Asia, we have persistent engagement and relationship building with our partners at the tactical level, before, during, and after the exercises. So we now have face-to-face and name-to-name relationships with our counterparts in all ten partner navies that we work with and those relationships are paying dividends for us.