Almost 10,000 troops from 29 countries kicked off the annual Cobra Gold in Thailand on Tuesday, as officials offered assurances that measures were taken to prevent the coronavirus from spreading among servicemen participating in the joint exercises.
The 10-day event, one of the largest military exercises in the Asia-Pacific, began as the Thai Public Health Ministry announced two new confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The flu-like disease, which is now called COVID-19, has infected about 80,000 people and killed 2,663 in China.
“I deeply commend brave and fearless soldiers determined to join the exercise in the face of hardship and the COVID-19 outbreak,” Gen. Pornpipat Benyasri, overall field commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, said in a speech during the opening ceremonies at Camp Akatotsarot in Phitsanulok province, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Bangkok.
He said the Thai military had arranged “strict measures” to prevent the virus from spreading among the troops taking part in Cobra Gold and “to ensure safe and healthy conditions for all participants.”
All the troops were checked with thermal scanners ahead of time, and anyone with a fever was screened out for a medical examination, officials said.
During the outbreak the virus has jumped from its epicenter in China to about 29 countries and territories, with about three dozen deaths recorded outside China.
Thailand’s latest two cases – a 31-year-old woman whose relative visited Guangzhou in China and a male driver of Chinese tourists – brings to 37 the confirmed cases reported by Bangkok, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has declared the disease a global health emergency.
Among the Cobra Gold participant nations is South Korea, which has reported 977 confirmed cases and 10 deaths as of Tuesday.
Pornpipat said Seoul, one of Thailand’s main training partners, sent in only a few officers to join Cobra Gold this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Last year, he said, South Korea participated with a full team and joined in the amphibious landing exercise and live-fire drill.
Last week, Seoul announced a drastic reduction in the number of its participating troops, from 400 to about 30, and will participate only in a simulated command-post exercise. Other countries such as the Philippines, Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom will also join in that exercise, officials said. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were participating as observers, they said.
The United States has sent about 5,500 service personnel, an increase of 1,000 soldiers from last year, according to a U.S. Embassy statement. They will join Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, which has 90 confirmed cases of the virus.
The risk of infection from COVID-19 remains low, and the threat of disease or illness is commonly considered by military planners when developing operations, U.S. Marine Capt. George McArthur, of the Cobra Gold 2020 Combined-Joint Information Bureau told the Stars and Stripes newspaper on Feb. 20.
“As part of the mitigation strategy we have brought additional medical capabilities, supplies, to include individual personal protective equipment, and additional preventive medicine specialists,” McArthur said.
Cobra Gold, the 39th of its kind, consists of three primary events this year, including field training. It is scheduled to run until March 6 in Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, Rayong and Chonburi provinces.
China and India will participate only in the humanitarian civic-action part of the exercise in Thai communities, McArthur said.
Highlighting the event is the first appearance in Thailand of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, which will be among 64 aircraft and two battle ships – the USS America and the USS Green Bay – sent in by the United States.
Michael Heath, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, told participants at the opening ceremony that Cobra Gold was essential to building trust among the participating military forces.
“This exercise provides our forces a critical opportunity to train together on complex and challenging missions to build trust and prepare us to fight together if ever needed in defense of the values and nations we serve,” he said.