Philippines, US launch most far-reaching joint military drills

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
Philippines, US launch most far-reaching joint military drills
rmy Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine, Philippine exercise director; Armed Forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr.; US embassy Charge d’Affaires Robert Ewing; Maj. Gen. Noel Beleran, Army deputy chief for education, training and doctrine, and US Marine Corps Pacific commander Lt. Gen. William Jurney, US exercise director, link arms during the opening of the annual Balikatan exercises at Camp Aguinaldo yesterday.

MANILA, Philippines —  The most expansive Balikatan exercise ever began yesterday, covering almost the entire length of the country and reaching the edges of its exclusive economic zone and beyond its 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.

The 39th iteration of the joint exercise, originally conducted only by the armed forces of the Philippines and the US, now involves the militaries and naval forces of Australia and France.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., US embassy Chargé d’Affaires Robert Ewing and US Marine Corps Forces-Pacific Commander Lt. Gen. William Jurney attended the opening ceremony.

Ewing said Balikatan represents “more than just a showcase of military readiness.”

“It embodies the deep-rooted spirit of collaboration and partnership that has defined the enduring alliance between the United States and the Philippines for decades,” Ewing said.

“This exercise, and the many other smaller military engagements, are central to achieving our shared commitment to greater interoperability between our respective armed forces,” he added.

Organizers said Balikatan 2024 focuses on bolstering collaboration and readiness across a broad spectrum of critical areas, including external defense operations, cyber defense, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster response and inter-agency capacity-building.

“It is not a partnership of convenience but rather a clear reflection of our shared history, unwavering commitment to democracy and respect for international law in our pursuit of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. It stands as evidence of our continuous effort to enhance the cooperation, dedication and mutual intentions that strengthen the interoperability of our forces,” Brawner stated.

Brawner noted that Balikatan is a testament to continuous efforts among allies to enhance cooperation, dedication and mutual intentions that strengthen the interoperability of forces through joint and combined operational settings.

“As coastal nations, the US and the Philippines share the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. We understand the importance of maritime cooperation in addressing the complex challenges that threaten peace and security in our region. Together, alongside our likeminded partners, we are fully committed to upholding a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“We’re going to show the people of the Philippines and the world that we’ve gotten better and we’re never going to stop doing so,” Jurney, for his part, said.

“When we get better, the Philippines gets stronger, safer and more secure,” he added.

The AFP announced that state-of-the-art assets of the Philippines and the US militaries would participate in maritime strike live-fire exercises on May 8 in Ilocos Norte.

According to the AFP, Balikatan Exercise 2024 is distinctive as it adapts to contemporary security challenges. But it stressed it is not tied to any particular country’s actions, apparently referring to China’s acts of provocations in the West Philippine Sea.

Participating as part of the AFP-hosted international observer program are 14 nations: Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In the Balikatan, the AFP said participants would execute a range of complex missions across domains, including maritime security, sensing and targeting, air and missile defense, dynamic missile strikes, cyber defense and information operations.

The navies of the Philippines, US and France are also set to conduct a Multilateral Maritime Exercise in the Philippines’ EEZ.

External defense

In a phone interview by “Storycon,” Col. Michael Logico, Balikatan 2024 executive agent, said the “scenario” for the Balikatan exercise is external defense “as it has been for various Balikatan.”

“I don’t know what other details I can add to that. Let’s put it in layman’s term: another country wants to attack us, and we defend,” he said.

Asked if Ayungin Shoal would be included in the drills, Logico said the exercises would be held “between, outside of 12 nautical miles but within our exclusive economic zone, in the Western side of Palawan.”

Told that it was the area being claimed by China, he blurted out: “Bingo.”

“There are several events that are always related to external defense, we have maritime defense, we’re doing a group sail, we’re doing maritime strikes. We’re going to sink a decommissioned Philippine Navy vessel, so that is engaging a surface enemy,” he said.

“And we also have an integrated air and missile defense exercise, so that takes care of the air domain. All of these are connected to the comprehensive archipelagic defense concept that was announced by the Secretary of National Defense. So the idea is we are protecting our maritime interest in our exclusive economic zone using our combined efforts between the AFP and our treaty allies,” he explained.

On China making an issue out of the selection of the Chinese-made BRP Lake Caliraya as missile target, Logico said it was “only a few days ago” that they found out that it was made in China. “Was it coincidence or synchronicity?”

“Actually, we didn’t know that it was made in China. It just so happened that among all of the vessels that we checked, it’s the one that’s still floating, and it was the right size for our exercise,” he said.

Asked by Storycon if the Typhoon Missile Launcher system would be left behind after the Balikatan, Logico said they would only find out after the exercise. –  Sheila Crisostomo, Mark Ernest Villeza

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