By Asiri Fernando/Defence Asia
Colombo, June 24: The bilateral maritime training exercise, Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), held between the U.S Navy and Sri Lankan armed forces kicks off today (24 June) in the strategic deep-water port of Trincomalee and off the Island’s eastern seaboard.
The U.S. – Lankan exercise comes as the nuclear powered USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) led US Navy (USN) Carrier Strike Group wraps up a two-day training exercise with the Indian Navy and Air Force aimed at improving interoperability between the countries in the Indian Ocean.
The 6-day CARAT-21 exercise, held for the fourth time will see two Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) vessels and several Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) aircraft engage with the US Navy’s warship – USS Charleston (LCS-18), its embarked helicopter (a MH-60S from the Sea Combat Squadron HSC21) and a P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The sea phase of the exercise will be held from 26th to 30th June off Trincomalee bay.
Sri Lankan Offshore Patrol Vessels; SLNS Sayurala (P623) and SLNS Gajabahu (P626) will participate in the exercise along with a Beechcraft King Air B-200 aircraft from No.03 Maritime Squadron and Bell 212 helicopters of No.07 Squadron and Bell-412 No.04 Squadron of the Sri Lanka Air Force. Incidentally, SLNS Gajabahu is the Ex. USCG Cutter Sherman, transferred to Sri Lanka in 2018.
The USS Charleston, a USN littoral combat vessel on rotation to the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the P-8A from the “Red Lancers” of Patrol Squadron (VP10) arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday (23 June). The P-8A will likely be based at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Hambantota, in the South of the Island, Defence Asia learns. This may be due to the airfield at China Bay, Trincomalee being inadequate to service a P-8A aircraft.
This year, the exercise is planned with minimal physical interaction between participants and will follow local COVID-19 health regulations, the SLN said. In a first for Sri Lanka, a destroyer from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF), JDS Yugiri (DD 153) and her embarked MH-60R helicopter will join Sri Lankan and US forces at the end of the exercise for fleet manoeuvres. This, days after the Japanese training vessel JDS Kashima and destroyer JDS Setoyuki called at Colombo Port and joined the SLN conducting a passage exercise in the west of the Island. In another first, CARAT-21 will be supported by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), the U.S Pacific fleet said.
“The naval exercise will feature a variety of joint training opportunities, to include Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), Maritime Aviation, Replenishment at Sea (RAS), Surface TRACKEX, Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), Search and Rescue (SAREX) and a wide range of naval exercises which are expected to be conducted adhering to COVID-19 protocols” the SLN said in a statement.
The SLN stated that the objective of the exercise were “enhancing maritime engagement and interoperability, fostering greater coordination in shared maritime challenges, gaining a better understanding of the operational environment, enhancing mutual capability in maritime security cooperation, operating in line with international law, norms and standards, facilitating the linkages between maritime components and law enforcement authorities as well as deepening partnership among the Sri Lanka Navy, US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force are chief”
Speaking at the Ex. CARAT-21 opening ceremony, Sri Lanka Navy Deputy Chief of Staff and Commander Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral YN Jayarathne said that “through engagement of this nature of exercises, it would further maritime security cooperation with rest of the mission partners and he also underlined the aspiration of the Ministry of Defence and Government of Sri Lanka for Navy to hone professionalism in partnership with regional and extra regional players to securing the ocean.”
Commenting on the exercise, Capt. Tom Ogden, commander, USN Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7 said that “CARAT Sri Lanka perfectly reflects the excellent cooperation between our two navies, and emphasizes our partnership and respect for Sri Lankan sovereignty” adding that the training value of CARAT-21 will be “invaluable building on previous iterations between our nations.”
Sri Lanka and the US held their first CARAT exercise in 2017, with the 2019 iteration of it jointly suspended following the Easter Sunday Bombings (April 2019).
The United States has increased its military diplomacy and training engagements with South and South East Asian nations following the superpower’s strategic shift towards the ”Indo-Pacific” theatre. In 2016, US Marines held joint training with their newly formed Sri Lankan counterparts. US Air Force units from the Pacific Command have also held several training exercises with the SLAF over the last decade. The U.S. has also supplied Sri Lanka with two Ex USCG cutters which are now in SLN service.
In March this year, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson told the U.S. Senate that “The United States must continue its defence cooperation with Sri Lanka and assist in professionalizing its military and further building its maritime security capacity. There is potential to increase collaboration with maritime and air forces on various issues, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, human trafficking, Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response, and maritime domain awareness”.
Adm. Davidson acknowledged that allegations of Human Rights violations by some in the Sri Lankan military will pose a challenge to the defence relationship between both countries. However, he told the U.S. Senate that military-to-military engagement with Sri Lanka will remain a focus for his command, pointing out that “Sri Lanka shows a continued willingness to seek security cooperation with the United States”
Sri Lanka is in a dialogue with the US, India, Japan and other countries to improve its maritime security and response capabilities. Both India and the US have expressed interest in providing Sri Lanka Maritime Patrol Aircraft to police the vast Exclusive Economic Zone around the Island.
An Iraqi Air Force King Air 350ERs special mission aircraft. Defence Asia reliably learned that Sri Lanka has shown interest in a similar platform for the MPA role. Pic by Staff Sgt Shawn Weismiller,US Air Force.
Both India and the US have also expressed concerns about Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean and in particular about its growing influence in Sri Lanka. Successive Sri Lankan Governments have maintained that the close links with China are economic and that no foreign power will be allowed a military foothold on the Island.
However, regional and international concern regarding Chinese involvement and investment in Sri Lankan strategic infrastructure remain high. Key amongst them is the Hambanthota deep water port in the South of the Island, which is controlled by a Chinese company on a 99-year lease, and the USD 1.4 Bn Chinese funded Colombo Port City project. Responding to growing concerns in New Delhi, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary and former Navy Commander Admiral (Retd) Jayanath Colombage stated in an interview that “Sri Lanka will not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests”
In June 2020, the SLN expanded their presence at Hambanthota Port by commissioning the naval shore establishment SLNS Kawanthissa, a fully-fledged naval base built adjacent to the strategically located Port. SLNS Kawanthissa falls under the preview of the SLN’s Southern Naval Command (SNC) and will be responsible for coastal surveillance and security of the Port. “SLNS Kawanthissa will coordinate with the Hambantota International Port and perform International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) duties at the port of Hambantota while providing security and surveillance long coast” the Navy said in a press release.
Last week, India warned Sri Lanka that they expected “Sri Lanka will remain mindful of our excellent bilateral cooperation, including for mutual security in our shared environment, which includes the maritime domain”. Commenting on the growing Chinese interest in the Island.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, told the press that “Regarding the Colombo Port City project, we have been closely following recent developments from our security perspective. We have also noted the concerns that have been raised in Sri Lanka regarding several aspects of the framework for the Colombo Port City”.
The comments from the regional power come three months after Sri Lanka pulled out of a 2017 agreement with Japan and India to develop the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted on Monday (21 June) that the two countries will “continue to remain in close touch”, following a telephone call with his Sri Lankan counterpart.
Last month, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill with amendments recommended by the Supreme Court. Critics have argued that the legislation erodes the Sovereignty of Sri Lanka over the reclaimed “Port City” area, leaving loopholes that will create conditions for money laundering to thrive and allow China to further their footprint in the Island, a charge that the Government rejects.
However, Indian continues to foster a robust security relationship with Sri Lanka. Earlier this week (22 June) the 5th annual high-level meeting between the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) was held virtually. In March this year, the Trilateral Secretariat on Maritime Security Cooperation, an Indian initiative to better coordinate maritime security-related matter with the Maldives and Sri Lanka, was established at Sri Lanka Navy Headquarters in Colombo.
Last year, India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. strengthened their defence cooperation and interoperability through a joint exercise – Malabar Ex 2020 off Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal. The last time the four nations held a similar exercise was in 2007. The four countries together make up a partnership that is known as “the Quad” based on principles of “democracy, a rules-based order, and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.
China has expressed concern regarding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) of the four nations and views the partnership as an informal strategic alliance against the rise of the Asian giant.