OPINION: US-Phl troops prepare for possible war with China

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Live-fire training, using naval artillery gunfire and aviation rockets and bombs to sink a vessel in the West Philippine Sea, where China continues its aggressive maneuvers. And the first live-firing here of a US Patriot missile as part of a drill in coastal defense.

That’s what the upscaled “Balikatan” joint US-Philippines war exercises from April 11 to 28 will highlight. This latest annual event, which started in 2002 on the heels of the US “war on terror,” will deploy 17,000 troops: 12,000 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos.

According to the Philippine military’s announcement last Tuesday, the target vessel will be located 22 kilometers from Zambales or 185 kilometers from Panatag Shoal, the traditionally open fishing ground which China seized from the Philippines and controlled since 2012.

“We will be sinking a target vessel using a combination of artillery naval gunfire and aviation weapons… We will be firing HIMARS [High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System], a combination of Philippine Air Force and US Air Force rockets and bombs…,” Balikatan spokesperson Col. Michael Logico was quoted as saying. A symbolic attack on a foreign military vessel (Chinese?).

Not symbolic, however, will be the US Army’s live-firing of a Patriot missile in the country. Last year, the US already deployed the Patriot system in a Balikatan mobilization exercise, but didn’t fire any missile. In the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, the US has provided this weapon system to the Ukrainians, who have used it to counter Russian missile and drone attacks.

Former Philippine Navy vice commander Rommel Jude Ong explained these new aspects of Balikatan 2023:

• This year’s Balikatan “seems to be designed to test operational concepts to enhance [the AFP’S] strategic deterrence posture” in the West Philippine Sea.

• The deployment of 12,000 American troops, the expert said, is a logistics exercise “to assess how it can rapidly deploy a large number of troops and equipment in the [war] theater.”

• The vessel-sinking exercise aims to test the Philippine Navy sea-denial strategy. “It is premised on the idea that a land-based anti-ship missile can defend the country’s waters from any adversary’s naval shipping, even from a distance.”

• Deploying the Patriot missile would allow the AFP to understand “the need for an anti-air defense system which can protect our land and critical infrastructure from conventional ballistic threats.” (Is there a push for the AFP to buy the Patriot missile system? Cost: $1.1 billion.)

Wouldn’t China be riled by these war games? reporters asked. Col. Logico replied, “We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory. We are here to show that we are combat ready.”

Preceding the Balikatan, three weeks of US-Phl army-to-army exercises, dubbed “Salaknib (shield)”, began on March 13 at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. That’s the country’s largest military camp, one of the initial five bases where the US forces are setting up facilities exclusively for their use, as allowed under the controversial 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

In the US, a newly-formed US Marine Corps unit, the Third Marine Littoral Regiment (TMLR), has just concluded a 10-day mock battle across southern California, using a series of mock-up military bases to represent an unnamed “Pacific island chain.”

The TMLR was formed to fight on islands and along coastal shorelines (“littoral regions”). It has been given special equipment and freedom to innovate, and develop new tactics for one “highest” priority project: “How to fight a war against Chinese forces in their own backyard, and win,” according to a New York Times report.

The TMLR consists of three component forces: an infantry battalion of roughly 800 Marines, an anti-aircraft battalion that is testing new weapons and tactics and a logistics battalion. Over the next two years, it will hold “4-5 times more” war exercises than most infantry regiments. “Its next big test,” the NYT pointed out, “will be in the Philippines in April,” referring to the Balikatan exercises.

Gen. David Berger, the USMC top general, justified preparations for a potential future armed conflict in the Pacific by citing China’s military moves.

“Each year they are expanding their deployment,” Berger said. “Not only in terms of the complexity of them, but also the distances they cover.” He took note that China’s navy is taking after the US Navy: operating in strike groups, with destroyers and other warships escorting an aircraft carrier.

One role the TMLR could take up would be to serve as spotters who would pass along the enemy forces’ positions to US warplanes, warships or submarines for them to attack. Or the TMLR could do the attack themselves.

Berger also talked of new battlefield conditions anticipated in a prospective war: Enemy and civilian spy satellites fly overhead, and anyone turning on a small cellphone can become the target of a long-range rocket or missile. “If you are emitting radio energy, you can be detected by the enemy. If detected, you can be located and seen. If seen, you can be killed.”

“We have to unlearn the way we were trained… You have to have an incredible amount of trust when you haven’t heard from your Marines for several days,” Berger stressed.

The Americans assume, noted the NYT, that any battle with China may take place in what the Pentagon refers to as the “first island chain.” That includes Okinawa and Taiwan down to Malaysia, the Spratlys and the Paracels – disputed islands in the South China Sea. The “second island chain” includes the Philippines, going from Japan to Guam to south of Palau.

Most likely, if sent to fight in the Western Pacific, the TMLR would use their most capable drones: the MQ-9 Reaper, which could drop bombs and fire missiles, while beaming back intelligence information. Significantly, the drones could take off from runways only 915 meters long. Could the USMC command be eyeing the EDCA sites in the country to build therein runways for the MQ-9 Reaper?

War freaks are surely getting excited.

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