PADANG MAT SIRAT, Malaysia -- The C-17 team lead, is drenched in sweat, his face bright red. The heat index is well over one-hundred degrees and half-moon circles creep through his flight suit, the humidity soaring off the charts. Yet he doesn’t seem to mind, letting it roll right off of him like water off a duck’s back. After he takes the first selfie with a joyful teenage visitor, a line of adults, adolescents and children form a line around him, all of them patiently waiting their turn to take a photo with him.
This type of grassroots interaction is a blip in time, a microcosm. But it represents the typical interaction of an American military member during the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition.
“You truly would be hard-pressed to find a friendlier or more appreciative collection of people anywhere on the planet,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Stottman, C-17 team lead. “Even with over two-hundred people crowding in the cargo compartment for hours on end, it was surreal how orderly and friendly it all went between people of all nations.”
From aircrew members to the ambassador, and from bandsmen to bomber jets, the U.S. sent a large contingent of both Department of Defense and Department of State personnel. From the Department of Defense alone, there were more than 1,400 Airmen and Sailors representing the United States during LIMA 19.
“[The U.S.] has the biggest Air Force in the world. You have the most sophisticated technology; everybody wants to follow the American Air Force,” said Malaysian Lt. Col. Muhammad Bin Abdullah, Royal Malaysian air force aerospace secretariat. “So when we have all the superpowers join us, people look at LIMA in a more positive light because of that participation.”
In the era of “great power competition,” it’s more important now for the U.S. to maintain an active role in the region.
“Part of competing in the Indo-Pacific region is presence. The fact that we are here is a key indicator of our relationship with Malaysia,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander, who attended as part of a larger counterpart visit to the region.
The LIMA 19 U.S. military delegation was a joint effort with the U.S. Navy sending a variety of aircraft and naval assets for public display. Beyond that, Sailors from the USS Blue Ridge took it upon themselves to visit a children’s orphanage in Langkawi, spending the day participating in various sporting activities with the children and providing donated items.
LIMA 19 will be considered a success by any measure simply for the bonds built upon and strengthened around the Indo-Pacific region by U.S. participation.
In its 15th iteration, LIMA was started in 1991 by the current Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad. It has grown in size and scope over the past three decades.
“We estimate there were around 42,000 visitors to the trade show,” said Malyasian Maj. Mohamad Hasry Bin Azhar, RAMF secretary of the aerospace secretariat.
When Azhar was asked what the U.S. participation in LIMA would do for the relationship between the two countries, he replied by saying, “We have certainly grown closer in many aspects. The government-to-government relationship has become stronger, and the military-to-military relationship has become stronger. And on behalf of the LIMA organization, I would like to thank the U.S. for participating in LIMA 19.”
“We desperately hope they’ll let us come back for LIMA 2021,” said Stottman. By the end of the exhibition, Stottman estimates he and his team have been in well more than 1,000 photos. “I’ll sign a memorandum for record to that fact,” joked Stottman.
It’s Saturday evening when LIMA 19 officially comes to a close. The final jets have taxied in, the residual smell of jet fuel permeating the air. The C-17 Globemaster III crew begins to secure their aircraft for the night, but waiting in the shadows underneath the gigantic wing is a group of Malaysians. One of the aircrew members waves them over; the children squeeze in front of the C-17’s nose for one final photo and then gleefully depart. The smiles on the faces of the aircrew are almost as big as their newfound friends' smiles.