War games in paradise

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HAT YAO BEACH, THAILAND — Before the assault, this tawny-sanded coastline was at peace. In the hazy beyond, the USS Essex appeared only in silhouette.

Then came fighter jets, ripping the sky apart. And amphibious assault vehicles, tearing through the surf. And attack choppers and hovercraft until, finally, this stretch of shorefront belonged to several hundred heavily-armed U.S. and Thai marines.

As with every exercise in Cobra Gold, this dizzying military orchestra was a dress rehearsal. The largest annual display of American military strength on Asian soil, Cobra Gold gives U.S. and Thai troops two weeks to prepare for a slew of worst-case scenarios: weather crises and armed invasions among them.

Roughly 7,200 American troops, 4,000 troops from the Royal Thai Armed Forces and a smattering from Singapore, Japan and Indonesia participate in Cobra Gold, which ended Tuesday. The event has taken place since 1982 and continues a Thai-U.S. military friendship forged in the 1960s, when both countries fought against a communist sweep in Southeast Asia.

Among Cobra Gold’s dozen-odd major exercises, few are more intense than the beach storming led by the Iraq-seasoned 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. In roughly one hour, about 500 U.S. and Thai troops proved they can transform a serene beach into an occupied battle zone.

So what's the stated purpose of this $14.1 million exercise? Readying a combined force of U.S.-Thai marines and sailors to rescue civilians from hostage areas, said Col. Paul Damren, commander of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “You might also use this type of landing … to provide humanitarian assistance when the situation was a bit uncertain.”

It began at 10:03 a.m. on Feb. 13. Four Harrier fighter jets were the first to arrive, launched from the distant USS Essex. They appeared as flinty specks in the tropic sky before, suddenly, diving into view to reveal the missiles racked to their underbellies.

The jets’ mock airstrikes readied the beach for a wave of amphibious assault vehicles, called AVs. These brutish machines, squat and armored, are fitted with two manned turrets on top. Inside each vehicle, marines endured a dark cabin thick with diesel fumes. Seawater sloshed at their boots until they mounted the beach, whipping up grit in every direction and slashing the sand with tread marks.

As the AVs sounded mechanized grunts and pushed into the jungly interior, helicopters circled overhead. First came Apaches, attack choppers with slender frames to ward off enemy missile attacks. Fat-bodied Hueys followed. Packed with marines, they touched down briefly and the troops rushed out from rear ramps.

The men raced into the briar-choked terrain, parting the knee-high saw grass, and took up positions. Hovercraft, barge-like vehicles called “Landing Craft Air-Cushioned,” were the last to arrive. Though broad and more vulnerable to attacks, they can be loaded down with supplies: rice sacks, medical gear or more weapons.

When the mission was complete, great plumes of sand had yet to settle over the coastline. The surf lapped at ragged tread marks torn into the beach. Thais and U.S. marines alike, still crouching in the grass, awaited the “all clear” and a final exercise briefing.

“The time to figure out how to work with each other is not … in crisis or combat,” said Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commander of Marine Forces Pacific. “You absolutely have to do that before the bullets are flying.”

Though the shadow of Cyclone Nargis hung over all of Cobra Gold, it seemed particularly dark over this beach assault.

During Cobra Gold last May, Cyclone Nargis ravaged neighboring Burma, eventually leaving nearly 140,000 dead. Cobra Gold’s U.S. and Thai leaders made entreaties to the Burmese junta, pushing the military government to allow thousands of troops to enter the storm-battered coast.

But Burmese leaders, forever paranoid about foreign intervention, resisted. And Cobra Gold troops continued playing out mock disaster-relief scenarios as a real-life horror show took place next door.

As the death toll soared, the U.S. briefly hinted at forced humanitarian aid. But 10 days after Nargis hit, Burma eventually allowed the U.S. to drop off $1 million in aid packages — a mere trickle of the needed relief.

The Hat Yao beach assault is in some ways a look at how Thai and U.S. forces would have flooded the Burmese coast with aid.

The USS Essex, a large assault ship, and the USS Harpers Ferry, a smaller vessel, both waited off Burma’s coast for nearly a month in hopes Burma would allow them to deliver relief packages.

Both vessels also took part in this year’s Thai beach assault. And, according to Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, Cobra Gold’s U.S. commander, the marines who stormed Hat Yao belong to the same units that would rush into Southeast Asia if disaster strikes again.

“The marines are ready to something like that if they need to,” Stalder said. “They realize that if something happens like another cyclone, they’ll be ready to respond.”

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