US, Thailand to hold annual military drills with troops from 30 nations

The Cobra Gold war games will be conducted in the Gulf of Thailand from Feb. 27 to March 10.
By Pimuk Rakkanam for RFA
Bangkok, Thailand
US, Thailand to hold annual military drills with troops from 30 nations Korean marines hold the beach at Had Yao in Chon Buri province, southeast of Bangkok, while taking part with fellow Thai and U.S. troops in an amphibious landing drill in Cobra Gold, March 3, 2023.
(Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

The United States will stage annual, large-scale military drills in Thailand at the end of February, the allied nations announced Friday, with more than 10,000 troops from 30 nations slated to participate. 

As part of the maneuvers, the U.S. and Thai navies will salvage a U.S.-made corvette that sank in the Gulf of Thailand in December 2022, leaving 34 crewmen dead or unaccounted for. 

The Cobra Gold war games will be held Feb. 27 to March 10 – the 43rd iteration of the world’s longest-running international military training program and one of the Indo-Pacific region’s largest combined military exercises.

Troops from the seven main participants – the U.S., Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan – will join combat rehearsals at five locations, including amphibious landings, strategic parachute jumps, ground and air live-fire and cyber warfare.

China will not take part in combat drills but will join civic action missions with India.

U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles secure the Had Yao beach head during the multinational amphibious landing drill in Chon Buri province, southeast of Bangkok, Feb. 28, 2020. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

The exercises follow a late January high-level meeting in Bangkok between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. 

That meeting was aimed at lessening tensions on the Taiwan issue and in the South China Sea.

Light salvage operation

Thailand and the United States will work together on the light salvage of the HTMS Sukhothai, which capsized and sank off Prachuap Khiri Khan province in stormy seas, officials from the two host countries said Friday. 

Twenty-nine died while five crewmen remain undiscovered, according to the Royal Thai Navy.

“This salvage, which will be executed as part of Cobra Gold 2024, will hopefully bring some comfort and closure to the families of all the brave sailors and marines who were lost,” U.S. Ambassador Robert F. Godec, told a joint news conference at a Thai military headquarters on Friday. 

The chief of Royal Thai Navy, meanwhile, denied local reports that the U.S. has forced it to give up a contract with a Chinese-linked company to fully salvage the corvette from the 50-meter-deep seafloor.

“The U.S. Navy’s offer came properly and it has nothing to do with any Chinese company,” commander of the Royal Thai Fleet, Adm. Chatchai Tongsaard, said at the same conference, adding that the delay was due to the Thai Navy miscalculating its ability to perform the salvage on its own.

The light salvage operation will include a search for the deceased, a damage survey, the destroyal of damaged weapons and the retrieval of undamaged components. The ship is likely to be discarded, he said.

Amphibious landing rehearsals

Premiered in 1982, this year’s Cobra Gold exercise will feature greater arrays of sophisticated military hardware as it follows its heavy year format of a two-year cycle.

“The objective of the exercise for 2024 is to enhance the relations of all participating nations, to enhance the forces’ capability and interoperability in conducting missions under the joint-combined environment and adapt to various kinds of threats and crises,” said Gen. Thitichai Tiantong, the Royal Thai Armed Forces’ chief of Joint Staff.

The U.S. will not deploy any carrier strike groups, according to Col. Kurt Leffler, the chief of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group. The focus instead will be on the amphibious landing rehearsals, he said.

Godec stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, where up to 60 percent of the world’s maritime trade transits.

“Cobra Gold maintains our shared readiness to secure the global commons, which is particularly relevant with piracy on the rise in key shipping routes around the world,” he said.

“Protecting Indo-Pacific maritime trade routes ensures the free flow of goods and services, which keeps transportation costs low, enabling Thai and American businesses to thrive and prosper and benefiting consumers through lower prices.”

The war games were scaled down in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe that year.

Myanmar, whose military junta staged a coup against a civilian government in 2021, was not invited to observe the drills in 2022 due to limited seats, according to the Thai military. It was unclear whether it took part in Cobra Gold 2021, which was partly held virtually.  

Edited by Mike Firn and Matt Reed.


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