Amidst recent calls for more multilateralism in our traditionally bilateral exercises, Southeast Asia Cooperation And Training (SEACAT) stands tall as the only multilateral information sharing exercise of its kind in Southeast Asia. A relatively small exercise when compared to goliaths like COBRA GOLD, BALIKATAN, RIMPAC, and TALISMAN SABRE – yet SEACAT’s return on investment is 1,000-fold. This year again, 13 Liaison Officers (LNO) from seven countries’ navies, namely The United States Navy, Republic of Singapore Navy, Royal Brunei Navy, Royal Thai Navy, Royal Malaysian Navy, Indonesia Navy, and the Philippine Navy gathered at the Changi C2 Centre in Singapore for the 14th iteration of SEACAT.
Under the auspice of a fictional United Nations Security Resolution, a combined U.S. and Southeast Asian Anti-Piracy Task Group was formed to thwart a recent increase in incidents of maritime piracy, and smuggling of weapons and narcotics in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. As this virtual reality unfolded at the Changi C2 Centre, three U.S. Naval Ships (USNS), the AMELIA EARHART, SAFEGUARD, and MILLINOCKET, acting as ‘bad guys’, sailed through the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea. Meanwhile, tidbits of information from Interpol, regional information fusion centers, news broadcasts, etc. trickled in to the 13 LNOs on the watchfloor, and only through an abundance of cooperation and information sharing was the picture clear enough for regional navies to conduct boardings at sea. Each boarding informed the next, and over the course of the five day exercise participating navies carried out a total of eight successful boardings at sea.
Originally named Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism, in 2011 SEACAT received a name change to its current form. This simple name change signaled collaboration over a broader range of shared maritime security challenges. In 2014, months after the multinational Search And Rescue (SAR) operation for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, SEACAT incorporated a synthetic SAR event for a lost U.S. P-3C aircraft off the coast of Palawan, Philippines. First-hand experiences and lessons learned from SEACAT LNOs who had participated in that search were applied to the Command and Control (C2) developed for the fictional SAR event in SEACAT. Only six months later, I was deployed to Pangkalanbun, Indonesia to participate in the multilateral search for Air Asia flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea. The C2 executed during that real-world SAR operation was strikingly similar to that exercised during SEACAT 2014.
Leveraging last year’s success, SEACAT 2015 included migrant boats lost in the Andaman Sea, very similar to last summer’s migrant crisis which resulted in a multinational search for over 7000 migrants lost at sea. Again, LNO’s first-hand accounts from real-world operations were deconstructed and applied to a future fictional operation. SEACAT remains an effective laboratory to study operations-past and apply these lessons to operations-future—and an equally effective tool to train the next generation of LNOs responding to crises. The dynamic challenges of the maritime environment have given us all a keen appreciation of the importance of readiness and agility in preparing and responding to crises. Leveraging ideas, innovation and talents of many skilled maritime professionals allows us to learn from each other and capture best practices and apply them when it matters most.
Possibly more important, it is those personal relationships nurtured during our bilateral and multilateral exercises that can make all the difference in crises. While on deck in Pangkalanbun for the Air Asia search I received a report that a Singaporean Super Puma was arriving at the airfield to deliver remains of one of the crash victims. Knowing I was in a position to help, I immediately reached out to my friend in the Singapore Navy – an Officer I had known for many years through SEACAT.
Within minutes I was chatting with the Singaporean Naval Operations Centre and passing pictures and weather conditions of the airfield, on-deck/off-deck reports and real-time photos of their helicopter on deck.
As a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) leading the Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) effort on the staff of CTF-73 in Singapore, I have personally been involved in SEACAT for over 12 years, and am extremely proud of its contributions to regional information sharing and the maritime security landscape over the years. As distinctly maritime nations who value freedom of the seas and the uninterrupted flow of commerce, SEACAT fosters cooperative security strategies. If the future is multilateral, the future is now.