US tries out new missile system in ‘Balikatan’ 2024

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

The Marcos Jr. administration appears to be “slowly but surely allowing the country to be dragged into the massive US-led military build-up against China, threatening to engulf the whole region in war.”

This was the urgent alarm raised by militant groups, calling attention to the 39th Balikatan joint military exercises between the US and Philippine armed forces, which began on April 22 and will end on May 10.

This time around, the US Army touts the “landmark deployment” of its newest ground-based Typhon mid-range capability (MRC) missile system capable of firing Tomahawk and SM-6 missiles.

If fired from their Northern Luzon location now, the missiles can reach as far as China.

The choice of Northern Luzon as site for the Balikatan exercises highlights the fact that the area is very near Taiwan and that it faces the West Philippine Sea. Notable is the choice of Laoag, capital of the Marcoses’ home province Ilocos Norte, for staging an exercise involving the sinking of a mock enemy ship in the West Philippine Sea through missile firing from land.

The Typhon was discreetly flown in on April 11 to an undisclosed location in Northern Luzon. This could only be any of the three Philippine military bases in Cagayan (La-lo Airport in La-lo town or Camilo Osias Naval Base in Sta. Ana) and Isabela (Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu). Last April, President Marcos Jr. provided these bases (along with an additional one in Palawan) where the US can install military facilities, rotationally station troops, aircraft and ships and stock up war materiel and equipment, as authorized by the 2014 Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Five EDCA sites had earlier been provided and are being developed by US forces.

“This is a significant step in our partnership with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in the region,” said Brig. Gen. Bernard Harrington, commanding general of the US 1st Multi-Domain Task Force, which brought in the Typhon. “We’re grateful to our partners in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and we’re excited to expand our security cooperation as we bring this new capability to Luzon.”

In an attempt to downplay the belligerent purpose of the exercise, the American exercise director for Balikatan, Marine Corps Forces Pacific Commander Lt. Gen. William Jurney, merely said: “Our combined capabilities with the (AFP) are stronger than ever. Every day that we work and train together, the bonds between our people grow stronger, our capabilities grow stronger, our alliance grows stronger.”

The big questions over the Typhon missile launcher deployment are: Would it be live-fired during the Balikatan exercises as the US Patriot missile was in the last joint military drills? Or, after the joint exercises, would it be pre-positioned in the EDCA site where it is now or elsewhere in the country? 

The militant alliance Pilipinas Nagkakaisa para sa Soberaniya (PINAS) – the late Rene A.V. Saguisag was a co-convenor – quickly denounced the Marcos Jr. administration for allowing the United States to deploy the Typhon missile system in Northern Luzon as part of the Salaknib 24 and Balikatan joint military exercises.   

PINAS cited reports that the US Army’s 1st Multi-Domain Task Force is a military group “specifically formed by the US to wage war against China” that has “successfully deployed its new Typhon missile system…for the first time ever somewhere in Northern Luzon. The system is capable of firing SM-6 missiles against ships, planes and other missiles over the South China Sea.”

“More importantly, it can fire Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) that can hit targets as far as the China mainland. Tomahawk cruise missiles may carry conventional as well as nuclear warhead,” the group emphasized.

Deploying Tomahawk missile launchers in Philippine soil represents a significant escalation in the US military build-up in the country.  By allowing this, Marcos Jr. is “openly signaling hostile intent against China, giving the US the capability to launch attacks on China… from our own territory,” said PINAS spokesperson Antonio Tinio. (He’s the former representative of ACT-Teachers Party of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives.)

“This contravenes the constitutional mandate to renounce war as an instrument of national policy, recklessly escalates the ongoing conflict between the Philippines and China over the latter’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, and places the lives of Filipinos in the direct path of attack or retaliation in the event of war [between the US and China], since China will automatically target these missile launchers,” Tinio warned.

Parallel stances have been manifested by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), Karapatan, Bayan Muna and allied progressive formations.

“Ironically,” Tinio added, “it could be our fellow Filipinos in the so-called Solid North, the supposed political base of Marcos, that would bear the brunt of such a response.”

Moreover, the PINAS spokesperson observed, Marcos Jr. has apparently turned his back on a previous pronouncement that his government would not allow the US to use the EDCA sites – nine in all – as staging grounds for “offensive actions” nor for storing war materiel that could be used by the US in the event of an armed conflict with China over Taiwan.

The ongoing Balikatan 2024 certainly is an attention-getting exercise. It’s flaunted to be the largest ever (since 1991), and involves nearly 17,000 personnel from the United States and the Philippines. There will also be participants from Australia and France.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson, Col. Francel Margareth Padilla, said this year’s Balikatan is “distinctive due to its scale and evolving nature, adapting to contemporary security challenges.” It has evolved, she pointed out, to being a “tactical exercise” to the so-called “operational level of war.” Balikatan, she added, is a “demonstration of combat readiness and interoperability with our treaty allies,” principally the United States.    

However, Philippine involvement in the exercise should not mean engaging in provocative war preparations, PINAS asserted: 

“The sovereign rights of the Philippines must be defended against China’s aggression by relying on our own resources and capabilities and primarily through diplomatic means.”

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