New Multilateralism for Maritime Southeast Asia: More Value per CARAT


Editor’s Note: This article draws upon analysis previously published as “Beyond Bilateralism: Exercising the Maritime Security Network,” Issues and Insights vol. 16, no. 11.


The last dozen years have been tumultuous for maritime Southeast Asia. Twelve years ago, a tsunami killed a quarter-million people in Indonesia and Thailand. Since then, cyclones, typhoons, tsunamis, and coastal floods have killed hundreds of thousands and impacted millions more. The same period witnessed three airliners crash into the ocean and a fourth simply disappear. Pirates attacked more than one thousand ships and hundreds of people have been killed in ferry disasters, 116 of them aboard a ship that dramatically sank in Manila Bay after a terrorist bombing. Recognizing that forces of nature, lost aircraft, drifting ships, terrorists, and criminals do not respect political boundaries, the maritime security forces of the region have amped up multinational cooperation both with each other and with extra-regional partners such as the United States. The U.S. Navy has readily taken part in multilateral cooperation in the region, using its expanding fleet capabilities to execute operations while simultaneously modernizing its exercises to advance regional maritime security capacity.

Recent Southeast Asian multinational maritime crisis operations involving the U.S. Navy include the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami response, relief operations after Typhoon Yolanda, and the searches for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and AirAsia flight QZ8501. Decades have passed since the U.S. Navy has participated in a strictly bilateral naval operation in Southeast Asia. It is almost impossible to imagine a future scenario where the United States would respond to a regional maritime crisis on a bilateral basis. Yet there is a disconnect here between operations and training. In contrast to the growth in multilateral operations, the bulk of U.S. maritime security training in Southeast Asia have remained bilateral. Experiences from recent multinational operations have demonstrated that the challenges associated with bringing together a wide range of capabilities, skill levels, and communications protocols are among the most formidable barriers to operational success. To better align operations and training, the U.S. Seventh Fleet and its regional partners are now seeking to introduce new multilateral elements into previously bilateral exercises.

Rebalancing: A Larger and More Capable U.S. Pacific Fleet

Maritime security continues to be a central element of the U.S. government’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The rebalance coincides with significant improvement in the U.S. Navy operational capability in the waters around Asia. The additional Aegis-equipped surface combatants, nuclear submarines, minesweepers, and littoral combat ships arriving at the waterfronts of Japan, Guam, and Singapore have expanded the U.S. Navy’s presence in the region to its largest size in decades. These forward deployed units are working alongside an increasing number of ships deploying to the Western Pacific from their homeports in Hawaii, California, and Washington State. In addition to the growing size of the U.S. fleet operating in the Western Pacific, individual units are more powerful because the Navy’s most technologically advanced systems are deploying to Asia first. Modernized cooperative defense arrangements such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines and agreements with Singapore to operate littoral combat ship and maritime patrol aircraft from Singaporean bases make these forces even more capable.

The U.S. Navy’s contribution to the rebalance reflects an upgrade to longstanding U.S. support for regional maritime security and capacity building. Yet, the increased U.S. maritime capabilities in the region are neither sufficient nor appropriate to answer the challenges of Southeast Asia’s complex security environment. They must be employed as part of a larger network, supporting efforts made by regional states and international organizations.

Multilateral Maritime Security Cooperation is the Shared Solution

A growing number of multilateral exercises sponsored by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN-affiliated bodies, and other regional organizations reflect shared commitments to strengthening cooperative maritime security capacity. Whereas 20 years ago there were only a few multilateral training events in Southeast Asia, the region is now replete with a menagerie of multilateral exercises and large maritime diplomacy events. For example, Australia organizes the Kakadu exercise, Indonesia hosts the Komodo exercise, the U.S. brings together regional navies at Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), Singapore organizes a Western Pacific Naval Symposium-sponsored maritime security exercise in conjunction with its International Maritime Defence Exhibition, and in 2015 Malaysia provided a maritime security training event at the end of the Langkawi International Maritime Aerospace Exhibition. The United States routinely participates in these multilateral exercises because they increase mutual understanding and establish baseline procedures for working together during crises and contingencies. These exercises have also formed important foundations for what Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently described as the region’s emerging principled security network.

However, multinational exercises suffer from a number of distinct drawbacks. A multitude of participating nations can engender political sensitivities, equipment incompatibility, and diverse operational procedures, all of which limit how difficult or realistic drills can be. As a result, multilateral exercise planners often dilute skills-based training in order to accommodate a greater number of partners. When the measure of success becomes the number of partners involved in an exercise, that meaningful accomplishment often comes at cost to the complexity of the operational training. In contrast, bilateral settings enable navies to focus on developing more specific skills, and this sort of sophistication is also important for strengthening the readiness of the U.S. Navy and its Southeast Asia partners. Fleets could ideally gain the advantages of both bilateral and multilateral training by simply doing more of both types of exercises while also devoting resources to maintenance, national training objectives, and conducting operations in the face of growing threats. Unfortunately, fleets are not large enough to just do more. Instead, exercises must become more effective and more efficient.

Seeking to find the optimal balance between cultivating multinational capacity and developing complex maritime skills, regional navies are not just creating new multinational exercises, but are also introducing multilateral elements into previously bilateral training events. The modernization effort underway within the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series provides an excellent illustration. With more than twenty years of history, CARAT has earned its reputation as the premier U.S.-sponsored maritime security training in Southeast Asia. However, until 2015, CARAT also remained strictly bilateral. Under the Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative, CARAT events are expanding to include other Southeast Asian and extra-regional navies. Exercises are retaining their strong bilateral foundations while introducing multilateral elements in order to increase value without sacrificing any training quality. .

Introducing Multilateralism to CARAT

Since its inception in 1995, the annual CARAT exercise series has built bilateral interoperability and capability between the U.S. Navy and individual Southeast Asian partners. Beginning with six partner nations (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand), the series consolidated originally disparate naval exercises into a single, more efficient event with each partner navy. The exercises have grown increasingly more sophisticated; and the series has expanded to include bilateral exercises with Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Timor-Leste. The United States and Vietnam also conduct the CARAT-like Naval Engagement Activity. Today, a typical bilateral CARAT exercise includes a shore phase with conferences and about a week at sea with units conducting everything from simple communications drills to missile firings and anti-submarine warfare.

Under the Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative, the exercise participants can employ two different approaches to select and introduce multilateral elements into a CARAT exercise. The first approach is for the two CARAT partners to mutually agree to invite a third party to the previously bilateral exercise. Often these third parties will be extra-regional countries with high levels of operational acumen such as Australia, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Such players can leverage their advanced interoperability with the U.S. Navy to “plug and play” within CARAT for immediate training value. Alternatively, the third party might be a current CARAT partner particularly suited to strengthen the collaborative training. For example, one could envision a future CARAT event involving the United States, Bangladesh and the Philippines, because both Bangladesh and the Philippines are already cooperating closely with the U.S. Navy to integrate ex-U.S. Hamilton-class cutters and AW-109 helicopters into their fleets.

The second approach is to introduce a multilateral lateral “overlap” between bilateral CARATs. This multilateral phase presents opportunities for the three or more navies to train together in less-sensitive fields, such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue (SAR), and anti-piracy, while preserving more sensitive training for bilateral phases. Targeting similar activities across two or more CARAT partners in a multilateral exercise allows for added realism while consolidating repetitive events. Helpfully, the “low-sensitivity” training areas have both the lowest barriers to multilateral training and correspond to the real-world threat most likely to multinational operations. As trust and confidence grow, CARAT organizers may be able expand the multilateral phase to include more advanced, sensitive training regiments.

Overlapping traditionally bilateral exercises at the intersection of shared security concerns allows for greater efficiency and effectiveness of training.

The development of multilateral CARAT events should not be misunderstood as somehow forming a coalition that excludes the People’s Republic of China. The United States demonstrates the value it places in building cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) by training together under the auspices of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), ASEAN-related organizations, and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. These events provide ideal venues for building trust and confidence between the Chinese and U.S. armed forces. However, CARAT’s advanced training objective are not conducive to Chinese involvement in the exercise series. Neither the U.S. Navy nor its Southeast Asian partners currently enjoy more than the most basic levels of interoperability with the Chinese Navy. Thus, Chinese involvement in a CARAT exercise would run contrary to the primary objectives of the exercise series to advance tactical skillsets and regional capacity. It seems unlikely that any Southeast Asian Navy would want to take their CARAT exercise down such a path in the near future. Naturally, this calculus could evolve over time.

The Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative is well underway with a number of new multilateral elements included in CARAT 2015: the Royal Australian Navy observed CARAT Philippines, United Kingdom Royal Marines observed CARAT Indonesia, Portuguese and Australian forces had roles in CARAT Timor-Leste, and the Royal Brunei Navy observed CARAT Malaysia. By the end of the year, there was a general concurrence by all parties that the multilateral approach was the correct evolution for the CARAT series.

A major milestone, the first trilateral CARAT event, took place between the bilateral phases of CARATs Malaysia and Philippines on June 4, 2016. The multinational CARAT training force conducted a coordinated tracking, surveillance, and boarding exercise of a suspected hijacked merchant vessel, played by USNS Montford Point in the Sulu Sea. A U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, ships at sea, and naval operations centers ashore shared information to build a Common Operational Picture for the exercise and successfully execute the mission. Shortly after the trilateral event, personnel from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force embarked a U.S. destroyer and Philippine frigate to observe CARAT Philippines, further expanding the multilateral purview of the series.

The Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative is just one of the fresh approaches the United States is taking to network its cooperative endeavors in Southeast Asia. Other efforts include, for example, India participating in the 2016 U.S.-Thailand Cobra Gold amphibious training for the first time and Australian forces participating in the U.S.-Philippines exercise, Balikatan 2016. Balikatan was also observed by the Japanese Self Defense Force which sent three surface ships and a submarine to water near the Philippines during that period.  In 2016, SEACAT was expanded to include a number of new Navy, Coast Guard, and interagency partners. Still, the evolution of CARAT is perhaps the clearest representation of what is new for the Pacific Fleet’s regional maritime security program. Trust and confidence built over time through a drumbeat of regional cooperation activities and shared desire to be more efficient and effective together are turning bilateral relationships into multilateral endeavors. The Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative represents a model approach by adding multilateral elements in a deliberate and thoughtful way that preserves bilateral training value. While not a unique approach, this is the first time such a modernization is taking place with multiple partners moving in stride. The resulting cooperative networks are fundamentally altering the dynamics of U.S. theater security cooperation in Southeast Asia, helping build the principled security network of tomorrow today.


Commander John F. Bradford is the Regional Cooperation Coordinator for the U.S. 7th Fleet and an adjunct fellow at The Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan Campus. Commander Greg R. Adams recently served as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Theater Security Cooperation for Commander, Task Force 73 in Singapore. Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Sean P. Quirk is as a Surface Warfare Officer stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow with the Pacific Forum CSIS.  The views the authors express are entirely their own and do not reflect positions of Pacific Forum CSIS, the U.S. Navy, nor any other body.

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