Practice Makes Perfect

October 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


Korean Sgt. Beom Kim stands watch as 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines and Republic of Korea marines review a map during a simulated amphibious assault as part of exercise Cobra Gold. Cobra Gold is a regularly scheduled joint and multinational exercise hosted annually by the Kingdom of Thailand and designed to enhance interoperability among the United States and Pacific nations.

Running through crisis scenarios beforehand allows partners in a large geographic area to come together effectively during disaster.

Operating from the most remote island chain on the planet, the U.S. Pacific Command is working to bridge the waters that surround it by training hard and often with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In an area of responsibility where bilateral relationships rather than multinational alliances are the norm, personnel spend large amounts of time engaged in exercises designed to improve interoperability and promote peace. Each year command troops and civilians alike rehearse, sometimes with tens of thousands of their closest friends, for real-world emergencies while simultaneously establishing relationships with their neighbors to the east.

According to Pacific Command (PACOM), Hawaii, in fiscal year 2011 it will sponsor 17 exercises. To keep up with the preparation and execution of the many training events, PACOM employs 26 people as full-time exercise planners. “We have a variety of reasons we do the exercises,” explains Cmdr. Alan Aber, USN, Warfighting Exercises Branch chief, Headquarters PACOM. “One is readiness for our own forces. [Another] reason is building capacity with our partners and allies.”

Constant exercising ensures that partners’ capabilities work together. The actions also help create continuity in an environment where personnel constantly change. Individuals moving into and out of the command create a need to introduce new people to each other on a regular basis. Through the exercises, nations can ensure that whenever disaster strikes or conflict arises, the personnel responding are prepared and have prior relationships with one another.

The people involved change often, but the exercises themselves do not. Cmdr. Aber explains that the events scheduled usually remain consistent, though some are held biennially, and that during his two-year PACOM tenure no exercises have been added or removed. However, he explains, “We’re always looking for opportunities to expand our exercise program.” With a large area of operations encompassing 36 countries, the command is eager to interact with partners when it can.

The many exercises held by the command have different themes, such as warfighting or disaster response. In an environment fraught with natural threats including volcanoes, earthquakes and cyclones, disaster readiness is a major element, and Cmdr. Aber says in any given exercise at least one vignette focuses on response efforts.

Some of the exercises cover a broad scope of activities; others are more specialized. Cmdr. Aber explains that while many of the training events include tactical forces and the actions they would need to take to secure an area and help the people in it, others focus only on high-level leaders at the combatant command and operational levels. These include exercises that are exclusively tabletop events with no field component.

In other exercises, the line between practice and reality blurs. During certain events, participants practice their disaster response efforts by providing actual aid to people who need it. The almost constant presence of humanitarian problems in the region also means that partner countries have plenty of opportunity to gain real-world experience. A source of friction in the PACOM area of responsibility (AOR) is the need to balance missions and training. Disasters and other events trump exercises, so if a problem crops up in the middle of an event, participants are diverted to respond.

To guide all the different exercises and activities, PACOM officials reference the Pacific Joint Training Strategy, which lays out the focuses, such as allied engagement or capacity building, for the different events. Exercises with developed, capable partners, for example, might focus closely on readiness because basics already are in place.

PACOM exercises vary in size. According to the command, its largest, Talisman Saber, involves 24,000 individuals. Because the event trains from the top echelons down to the bottom for contingency operations, it requires a significant number of participants. This effort, which involves Australia and the United States, is the most prominent exercise between the command and a partner. In the biennial event, U.S. forces travel to Australia to focus on operational and tactical interoperability through a high-end, medium-intensity exercise. It involves live, virtual and constructive forces and will be held next in 2011. The command post exercise involves the PACOM staff and joint task force staff.

The event is always held in Australia, leveraging the country’s ranges and significant maritime element. Both nations involved have well-developed capabilities, eliminating the need to work on capacity building. Cmdr. Aber says the exercise is good for the countries because they serve together in coalitions around the world. Though the United States and Australia are the only active participants, other nations attend as observers.

Key Resolve is another large, bilateral exercise that involves many thousands of people. This event takes place between U.S. and Korean forces. Held annually, it involves field and command post training. Just as with Talisman Saber, multinational observers attend to understand the ideas better, but they do not participate actively.


A soldier from the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment prepares to move after being dropped off at Sam Hill Airfield by a U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter during exercise Talisman Saber, a biennial combined training activity designed to train Australian and U.S. forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations.

Not all events include such large numbers of individuals. Commando Sling, a U.S.-Singapore tactical fighter exercise, exemplifies a small event, incorporating only 1,200 members. U.S. personnel train with Japan every two years during another event with a comparatively low number of participants—Keen Edge. It primarily involves the U.S. Forces Japan headquarters staff and members of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Cmdr. Aber explains that compared to other bilateral exercises in the region, this one is small, but it remains important because Japan is one of the United States’ staunchest allies.

Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia are all countries with which PACOM has alliances. These are strong, formal relationships, and U.S. personnel work and train regularly with representatives from those nations. In other situations, PACOM recognizes countries such as Malaysia and Singapore as partners. This type of relationship is not as close, but still important.

Though PACOM personnel often exercise in bilateral events, there are exceptions. “Cobra Gold is a perfect example of a multilateral exercise,” Cmdr. Aber says. Cobra Gold began as a Thailand-United States exclusive training event, but it has grown over time. This year, the United States, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia and, for the first time, the Republic of Korea all participated fully, while additional nations observed or provided some type of support. The event aimed at improving joint and multinational operations as well as enhancing multinational interoperability and capacity. Cobra Gold falls into the category of a medium-sized event with approximately 12,000 participants, according to PACOM officials.

Cmdr. Aber says the United States aims to make the most out of these multinational exercise opportunities and would like to see more of them. The United States stresses its interest in increasing the number of participants, the commander says, but some countries prefer exclusive events.

In a different type of event, PACOM exercises the ever-necessary humanitarian response skills. For the past five years, command personnel have engaged in Pacific Partnership, an activity that strengthens regional relationships in Southeast Asia and Oceania through medical, dental and engineering aid and prepares the United States and countries in the area for catastrophes such as pandemic illness and natural disaster. Pacific Partnership is not officially labeled an exercise by the command, though the event does train capabilities and perform many of the same relationship-building activities. By sending U.S. medical resources to areas with poor health care, personnel can prepare for humanitarian crises while simultaneously offering immediate assistance. The activities also help local populations become familiar with PACOM assets, building relationships for actual emergency situations.

As with almost every activity undertaken by the U.S. military, PACOM exercises often involve civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations. These partners play especially large roles in humanitarian missions such as Pacific Partnership.

Exercising helps to eliminate bureaucracy because participants can pinpoint who is in charge of particular functions. By doing this ahead of an actual event, responders know whom to contact or mobilize, eliminating layers of confusion. The events have to be challenging for participants if they are to derive real benefit. “When you present the training audience with complex scenarios that staff has to work through, they realize where their strengths and deficiencies are,” Cmdr. Aber explains.

Planners try to make all of the training as realistic as possible, and this requires keeping an eye on world events. Exercises aim to enhance force readiness, meaning that troops need to be prepared to meet current threats, whether caused by humans or nature. When necessary, alterations even can be made midstream. “We have the flexibility to change the scenario,” Cmdr. Aber explains. During the exercise life cycle, changes evolve and sometimes are mandated. The commander says that in certain cases senior directors weigh in late to express the need for alterations to accommodate developing events or frictions.

Another factor that affects planners’ jobs and schedules is the PACOM headquarters’ distance from the other nations in its AOR. With the international dateline running between Hawaii and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, choosing planning and execution days can be difficult. Mondays and Fridays can be problematic, Cmdr. Aber explains, because either the United States or its partners could be on a weekend. To stay within normal working hours for all involved nations, even Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are only available for half the day. Traveling from PACOM to countries in the AOR requires a significant amount of time. The expansive AOR makes exercises more important because they bring together partners and allies separated by geography.

The engagement pieces of the exercises are part of the PACOM campaign strategy to reach out to nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Representatives meet consistently with partner nations not only in military-to-military venues but also often with civilian agencies. The increased interaction between the United States and foreign governments arguably reduces the potential for disputes or conflicts with those countries or partners, Cmdr. Aber says.

He adds that the impact of these exercises is huge for all the echelons from the commander of PACOM down to tactical units, ships, sailors and troops on the ground. In addition, building capability and capacity in partner nations enhances future interactions. Exercises also enable the United States to engage with allies and partners in myriad venues while providing access to countries that otherwise would be off limits.

Finally, the exercises promote stability and security with the region, and PACOM is striving to make the area more peaceful. By engaging in both military and humanitarian exercises, U.S. forces are helping to prevent dangerous events that could or would happen otherwise.

Pacific Command:
Australian Department of Defence:
Japan Ministry of Defense:


Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.