After concluding an ambitious counterpiracy exercise yesterday with the Chinese navy, members of the U.S. 5th Fleet expressed hope it will lay groundwork for closer future cooperation in ensuring freedom of movement in the Gulf of Aden, other regional waters, and beyond.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Mason joined the Chinese destroyer Harbin and Chinese auxiliary replenishment oiler Weishanhu for the two-day exercise in the Gulf of Aden, Navy Capt. Joseph Naman, commander of Destroyer Squadron 50 and Task Force 55, said during a phone interview from Bahrain.
The Chinese oiler played the role of a pirated vessel, as crew members from the Mason and Harbin conducted a combined visit, board, search and seizure drill that included a night boarding, reported Navy Cmdr. D. Wilson Marks, Mason’s commanding officer.
Simulated medical emergencies and hostage scenarios required the sailors to work together to provide a coordinated response.
In addition, the crews demonstrated synchronized maneuver techniques during a live-fire proficiency exercise, engaging an inflatable target with the 5-inch MK-45 lightweight gun and 3.9-inch ENG deck guns, Marks said.
Another “significant milestone,” Naman said, was the landing of a helicopter from each country aboard the deck of each other’s ship.
The exercise represented a big step beyond the first counterpiracy exercise between 5th Fleet and the Chinese navy, conducted in September near the Horn of Africa, Naman said. The 2012 exercise, which involved the USS Winston S. Churchill and the Chinese frigate Yi Yang, lasted only about six hours and was limited to a basic visit, board, search and secure exercise, follow-on discussion and crew lunch.
Throughout this week’s mission, Marks said, he was struck by how similarly the two navies operate.
“What my crew found out is they are sailors like we are,” practicing many of the same techniques as they confronted the same challenges, he said.
Both the United States and China recognize the importance of freedom of access and movement in the maritime environment, uninhibited by piracy or other illicit activity, Naman noted.
“I think both China and the U.S. share the common goal to make that happen,” he said.
Both navies, for example, regularly conduct counterpiracy operations in the Gulf region.
The United States is part of a multinational coalition task force that works collaboratively in and around the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. China, in contrast, operates independently. Naman said he would like to see that change, and that he hopes exercises like the one conducted over the weekend will encourage China to consider joining the coalition.
International cooperation and measures taken by the civilian shipping industry to discourage pirates have brought a dramatic drop in piracy compared to just three to four years ago, he reported.
“The sum of the parts is greater than the one, which is what the coalition brings in,” Marks said. “You can share best practices, build on each other’s strengths [and] capitalize on those strengths. … We are all working toward that shared goal of freedom of movement in the maritime [domain]. So if we all share the same goal, we ought to be working together, and that is what we are really trying to do.”
In the meantime, he said, exercising together helps to increase interoperability between the U.S. and Chinese navies that they can draw on in the future, anywhere in the world.
“As we have learned in the past, military-to-military engagement pays big dividends, because we operate in the same environment and … share the same common goals for that maritime environment,” Naman said.
Marks, who called the exercise “one of those once-in-a-career experiences,” said he and his crew hope for more opportunities to work with the Chinese navy.
For one of the participants, Navy Seaman Yi An, the exercise was particularly memorable. A naturalized U.S. citizen, the culinary specialist was born in China’s Quingdao province -- which the Harbin’s crew calls home.
Yi served as an interpreter during the exercise, generating a lot of excitement among the Chinese sailors as he shared hometown stories, Marks said. He was treated as an honored guest aboard the Harbin during a luncheon yesterday that concluded the exercise.
But exercising with their Chinese counterparts gave the entire Mason crew new insights, Marks said.
“Watching U.S. and Chinese sailors working side by side was amazing,” he said. “We may come from different places and speak a different language, but at the end of the day, we all share a common interest in protecting the maritime environment.”
(Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Aylward contributed to this article.)
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Date: Aug 26, 2013