Landing Craft Utility (LCU) 1651, assigned to Naval Beach Unit 7, departs the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46) in the Gulf of Thailand Feb. 9 during an off-load evolution ahead of exercise Cobra Gold. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Gregory A. Harden II)

GULF OF THAILAND - The forward-deployed Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group is off the coast of Thailand to take part in exercise Cobra Gold, which kicked off Feb. 11 during a ceremony in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The ARG consists of USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), USS Germantown (LSD 42), and USS Tortuga (LSD 46), with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked.

Cobra Gold is a Thai-U.S. co-sponsored multinational exercise that includes forces from Thailand, the U.S., Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Twenty additional nations have sent observers this year, including, for the first time, Burma.

The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, kicked off the longest-running U.S. military exercise, calling the 13,000 multinational participants guardians of future peace and prosperity.

Cobra Gold began as a bilateral U.S.-Thai exercise in 1980, but expanded more than a decade ago to include other regional partners to advance their common goals and security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region, officials said.

"Whether you are a participant or an observer, or whether you have been here for 32 years or this is your first year, your being here demonstrates your country's resolve to peace and stability in this region and in the world," Locklear said at the opening ceremonies. "It is critical to building our multinational coordination, our interoperability with all of our partners in the region and to allow us to collectively respond to crises and protect the peace and prosperity of all our people."

"As you know, Cobra Gold has become a truly multinational exercise," Royal Thai Army Lt. Gen. Tarnchaiyan Srisuwan, the Thai-directed lead of CG 13 and director of Joint Operations for the Royal Thai Armed Forces, said during the ceremony. "Its size is growing ever larger, in terms of the number of the parties participating and in every nation and throughout the world.

"It's a great honor to take part in these exercises," said Capt. Cathal O'Connor, commander of Amphibious Squadron 11. "Exercises like Cobra Gold demonstrate our ability to operate forward and our readiness to execute any mission. At the same time, we strengthen the personal and professional relationships that enable our Naval forces to fight and win in a coalition environment."

This year's exercise will be demanding, as it prepares participants "for a broad spectrum of challenges we are going to face together," Locklear said. The ambitious training schedule includes a staff exercise, senior leader engagements and "humanitarian and civic projects we will do together, field training we will do together, [and] live-fire events we will do together," he said.

Highlights will include an amphibious assault demonstration that includes attack jets, helicopters, landing craft and small boats; small-boat and helicopter raids; a multilateral noncombatant evacuation operation; a combined arms live-fire exercise; and jungle warfare and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training.

All are designed, Locklear said, to "replicate the dynamic environment we find ourselves in today and [expect] in the future." He challenged the participants to take advantage of the training opportunities at Cobra Gold to build the bonds and capabilities that ensure they will be prepared.

"Working together, we will meet the challenges and forge a brighter future for the region and the world," he said.

The U.S. and the Kingdom of Thailand have been working together for 180 years. CG 13 is the latest in a continuing series of exercises designed to promote peace and security in the Western Pacific.

Four Royal Thai Navy and Marine Corps officers have been embarked aboard USS Bonhomme Richard since Feb. 2 to assist with the planning of Cobra Gold.

"It has been a pleasure having the Thai officers on board, they are both professional and knowledgeable," said Capt. Daniel Dusek, Bonhomme Richard's commanding officer. "The officers and crew of the Bonhomme Richard look forward to working closely with our Thai counterparts throughout the exercise continuing to build on an already strong regional partnership."

Compiled from reports by Donna Miles, Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class N. Ross Taylor, and Spc. Catherine Sinclair.