The Freedom casts off from Changi Naval Base on June 11 to begin taking part in CARAT exercises. (MC2 Toni Burton / Navy)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, is briefed June 2 in the ship's mission control center by commanding officer Cmdr. Timothy Wilke, center. / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Navy
Seven weeks after arriving at Singapore, the littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) left Changi Naval Base on June 11 to begin a series of regional exercises with navies of friendly nations. The Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises take place annually around southeast Asia, but the Freedom’s participation is expected to be one of the most-watched events in the history of the maneuvers.
“The opportunity to work side-by-side and interact with regional navies in exercises like CARAT is in large part why Freedom was deployed to Southeast Asia,” Rear Adm. Tom Carney, commander of Task Force 73 and U.S. naval forces for CARAT, said before the ship shoved off from Changi.
Although the ship has operated in the Caribbean and western Pacific Ocean since entering service in late 2008, the much-ballyhooed deployment to the Far East is putting the sometimes-troubled Freedom under a spotlight like no other 3,000-ton small combatant has had to endure.
While at Singapore in May, the ship took part in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX) and the Singapore Navy’s Western Pacific Multilateral Sea Exercise (WMSX), where interest in the ship was high. The intense media scrutiny was expected and will likely continue through the cruise, expected to last through the year.
Commanding officer Cmdr. Timothy Wilke, his 50-sailor Gold Crew, and the surface warfare and aviation detachments aboard have become used to visitors coming aboard, from high-ranking U.S. and foreign officials to more than 5,000 people who toured the ship over a Singapore open house weekend in mid-May.
Since arriving in Singapore on April 18, the list of distinguished visitors to tread the ship’s decks is impressive and includes U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations; Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command; and Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The numerous foreign military and government visitors include Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen and Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The CARAT exercises already are underway. The Indonesian phase was completed in May, and exercises in Thailand are winding up. Other U.S. ships taking part in the CARAT exercises include the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), amphibious ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46), salvage vessel USNS Safeguard (T-ARS 50) with Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 1, and the supply ship USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE 11). The Freedom is headed for Malaysia to begin her participation. Other navies taking part in CARAT include Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste.
The Freedom will also take part in Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercises.