By Pimuk Rakkanam
The United States will stage annual, large-scale military drills in Thailand at the end of February, the two allied nations announced Friday, with more than 10,000 troops from 30 countries slated to participate.
As part of the maneuvers, the U.S. and Thai navies will salvage a U.S.-made Thai navy ship that sank in the Gulf of Thailand in December 2022, leaving 34 crewmen dead or unaccounted for.
“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 Cobra Gold war games will be held Feb. 27 to March 10. They will be 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 that will include 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.
Light salvage operation
Thailand and the United States will also 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 crewmen died while five 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. had forced it to give up a contract with a Chinese-linked company to fully salvage the corvette from the 50 meters-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.
He added 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 retrieval of undamaged components and the destruction of damaged weapons. 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 format of a two-year cycle.
The U.S. will not deploy any carrier strike groups, according to Col. Kurt Leffler, the Chief of Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group said. The focus instead will be on the amphibious landing rehearsals, he said.
U.S. envoy Godec stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, where up to 60% 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, where the 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.