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American Forces Press Service

Strait of Malacca Stands as Model of Multilateral Cooperation

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Aug. 1, 2012 – U.S. Pacific Command is holding up a multinational partnership in the Asia-Pacific region as a model for the type of cooperation the command is working to promote to deal with transnational threats.

A decade ago, the Strait of Malacca was a dangerous place, where pirates launched almost 50 attacks a year in the narrow, 550-mile-long sea lane linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. That had serious international implications, because about 50,000 vessels transit the passageway each year, carrying an estimated 40 percent of the world’s trade.

Today, incidents have dropped to fewer than five a year, without a single successful hijacking in almost four years, reported Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael A. Keltz, Pacom's director of strategic planning and policy.

Keltz attributed that success to a partnership among nations bordering the strait, with help from U.S.-funded technology that has boosted maritime security dramatically.

Meanwhile, countries that once resisted engaging in multilateral, multinational operations now are doing so, Keltz said. Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and, increasingly, Thailand, have joined forces to increase patrols and improve their collective maritime domain awareness and law-enforcement capabilities.

A command and control information center that opened at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base in 2009 supports this effort, drawing together information shared by 11 nations. This includes data from shore-based radars positioned throughout the region and an electronic tracking system that automatically identifies vessels transiting the strait.

The neighbors share this information, establishing a common operational picture that enables all to better detect and identify potential threats, Keltz said.

The Strait of Malacca stands as an example, he said, as nations come together to address regional challenges collectively.

“That is the model we are building for our [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] partner nations,” he said. “We help them achieve the basic [defense] capabilities so that they can do that [mission] themselves.”

As it implements the new strategic guidance focused heavily on the Asia-Pacific, Pacom is working actively to promote more multilateral cooperation, Keltz noted. It’s a major thrust behind the Pacific rebalancing effort, including new force rotational arrangements.

“We want to be better situated around the entire Pacific to build those partnership capacities on a trilateral, multilateral and regional basis,” he said.

As regional partners exercise their own enhanced capabilities, Singapore has agreed to host U.S. Navy littoral combat ships on a rotational basis. The Navy’s new LCS, USS Freedom, is scheduled for its first 10-month rotational deployment to Singapore beginning next spring.

Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, Pacom commander, welcomed the planned rotations, along with Marine rotational deployments in Australia, as a way to expand U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific without the need for more permanently based forces.

The littoral combat ships, he said, will be positioned alongside a strong, reliable partner near the strategic Strait of Malacca that links the Indian and Pacific oceans. “It will give us a unique, credible combat credibility for our maritime security, particularly in one of the largest choke points in the world,” he said.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Defense Minister Ng En Hen of Singapore announced during security talks in Singapore that the two countries had agreed to lay plans for expanding this arrangement to include additional littoral ships.

“Secretary Panetta reaffirmed that the LCS deployment would strengthen U.S. engagement in the region, through the port calls at regional ports, and engagement of regional navies through activities such as exercises and exchanges,” according to a joint statement released after that meeting.

Locklear said he’d like to build on these models as he implements the new strategic guidance that emphasizes the importance of Asia and the Pacific. Rotational forces provide “an uptick in presence” that he said complements that provided by the 330,000 service members permanently based within Pacom’s area of responsibility.

“What they provide is an ability to work with our allies and to leverage the capabilities of the allies across all aspects of peace to conflict,” the admiral said. Meanwhile, he added, the additional presence rotational forces provide creates regional footholds that could pay off if the United States had to flow more forces to protect U.S. or allies interests there.

That presence, and the experience base it helps to build, would be particularly valuable in a disaster requiring humanitarian assistance, such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or any other crisis, he said.

“It gives training to the forces that rotate in and out,” he explained, so they are familiar with the region and the regional militaries if they need to work together. He cited last year’s Operation Tomodachi in Japan as an example. “So there is a lot of value to it,” he said.

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