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BIG U.S.-PHL DRILLS ON, ‘PREPARING FOR WAR’; Sinking of ship, islands takeover training readied

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

MANILA/WASHINGTON – As tension with China soared to new high over its “dangerous” activities in West Philippine Sea, the Philippines and the United States with 12 other allied countries mounted the biggest ever military drills in various areas in Luzon, Palawan and the West Philippine Sea involving some 11,000 American troopers and 6,000 Filipino soldiers, firing of missiles, shooting a ship and taking of islands, among others.

Fresh from his summit in the White House with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the multi-lateral exercises will help maintain the peace and stability, freedom of navigation and adhere “totally and completely, and constantly to the rule of international law” particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

At the White House, President Biden and his administration officials, strengthened alliance with the Philippines and Japan, and warned that an armed attack against Philippine military vessels would invoke the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty.

President Biden said the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines is “ironclad.”

The military drills called Balikatan 2024 officially starts on April 22 and end after three weeks in May but hundreds of soldiers and their equipments and other resources have arrived in the country and have conducted separate and related military exercies, said Balikatan 2024 executive officer Col. Michael Logico.

One of the pre-Balikatan exercises involved the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the US Air Force (USAF) which formally concluded the first iteration of Cope Thunder Philippines 24-1 exercises at Basa Air Base, Floridablanca, Pampanga

Participating aircraft included the PAF’s FA-50PH light jet fighters and the USAF’s F-16 multirole jet fighter and the drills took place in the Northern Luzon Intensive Military Training Area, involving approximately 700 airmen from various PAF and USAF units.

“The Cope Thunder exercises play a crucial role in preparing the PAF for the upcoming Large Force Employment missions during the ‘Balikatan’ Exercises 2024, scheduled to commence on April 22, 2024,

The venues for the military drills was chosen “to prepare for the possible armed conflict between China and Taiwan.”

“The purpose of an armed forces, why we exist, is to prepare for war. There’s no sugarcoating it. That’s absolutely true,” Logico said.

“For us not to prepare, that’s a disservice to the country,” he added.

“The act of doing exercises is also related to the implied activities of an armed forces. The armed forces have a mandate to defend our territory and there is an adjunct to that mandate which is you have to train for it. For realistic training, we train in areas where realism is provided for,” Logico told reporters during a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Quezon City.

 “The purpose of the armed forces why we exist is we need to prepare for war. There’s no sugarcoating it. For us not to prepare, that is a disservice to the country,” he continued.

The National Security Council later clarified the Philippines is not preparing for war.

“War is not on the table. War is not one of the instruments of the Philippines,” NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya. The NSC is headed by former Armed Forces chief of staff and Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano.

Balikatan 2024 involves maritime, air and land drills up to Batanes waters near Taiwan.

Balikatan 2024 will officially close in May, after troops from the Philippine Navy, US Navy, and French Navy have conducted a multilateral maritime exercise in the country’s exclusive economic zone, including those in Palawan and Batanes near Taiwan.

Besides Germany, observers of the joint military drills include Brunei, Canada, France, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, scores of whose forces will participate or merely observe the exercises.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will showcase all modern weapon systems and platforms acquired under its ongoing modernization program during the three-week Balikatan 2024 exercises.

“Everything that we have is going to be put in full display in Balikatan, ok so we have FF-151 (missile frigate BRP Antonio Luna), LD-602 (BRP Davao Del Sur), PS-16 (offshore patrol vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz), (our) FA-50s (light jet fighters), Super Tucanos (A-29B close air support aircraft), our Black Hawks (S-70is combat utility helicopters),” Logico said.

Aside from the equipment, Logico said the the Philippine Air Force’s Israeli-made SPYDER air defense missile batteries will also be utilized in the exercise.

Meanwhile, the United States would deploy its fifth generation F-22 “Raptor” stealth fighters, the F-35 “Lightning II”, another stealth fighter in American service, AH 64 “Apache” attack helicopters and its AC-130 “Spooky” gunships, and at least two naval ships.

During the multilateral maritime exercise, the Armed Forces of the Philippines will utilize two Philippine Navy vessels and one Philippine Coast Guard ship which will sail along with the US ship and French Frigate.

Other assets to be utilized are the F-22 ‘Raptor aircraft, AC-130 gunship, Apache helicopter, Blackhawks, F-35 lightning, F-15 aircraft, BRP Davao del Sur (LD-602), and BRP Alcaraz (PS-16), FA-50, Super Tucano, as well as the Surface-to-Air Python and Derby mobile air-defense missiles.

Logico said the planned multilateral maritime exercise will also demonstrate the country’s combat readiness with its like-minded allies.

“The reason why we do exercises is to demonstrate our combat readiness…You do exercises for that primary reason—to maintain a high level of readiness,” Logico said.

“I do not discount the possibility that this also sends a message to our adversaries, to our friends, to our allies, and also to our like-minded partners,” he added at a press conference

Logico disclosed that the maritime group sail will start from the Palawan coasts and will continue within the bounds of the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

“The message actually, if you take it into totality, is the main goal of the exercise objectives which is to demonstrate the strength of our alliance and our willingness to defend our territory,” Logico said.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Command (Wescom) based in Palawan will host two high impact activities during the “Balikatan” exercises from April 22 to May 10.

“Wescom will be the hub of two major CJADO (Combined Joint All Domain Operations) events – Training on Maritime Key Terrain Security Operations and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Rapid Insertion (HIRAIN) Operations,” Wescom chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said.

Ahead of the drills, United States military units participating in this year’s exercise had already started establishing logistics infrastructure in Wescom’s joint operational area, he said.

Participants will engage in simulations, live-fire drills, and tactical exercises, aimed at enhancing cooperation and boosting the capabilities of the AFP and the US military.

These training events are expected to increase the allied forces’ ability to work together in response to crises across the military spectrum to accomplish the mission while also supporting the local population.

Apart from these training events, several humanitarian civic assistance projects such as the ongoing construction of a health care center in Barangay Punta Baja, Rizal, and the upcoming civil-military engagements in the area also aim to provide immediate and direct benefit to the local communities of Palawan.

“We welcome all participating contingents as we prepare for the PH-US Balikatan 39-2024 here in Palawan. Together, we will strive for a successful exercise that not only strengthens our bilateral ties but also brings benefits to our country and our allies,” Carlos said

As this developed, about 55 Chinese vessels of various types were sighted in five features of the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Philippine Navy spokesperson for WPS Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad said.

In a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Tinidad said two China Coast Guard (CCG) craft and 24 Chinese maritime militia vessels (CMMVs) off Bajo De Masinloc (also known as Scarborough Shoal).

Meanwhile, one CCG ship and five Chinese fishing vessels (CFVs) were detected near Ayungin Shoal; one CCG and 19 CMMVs near Pagasa Island; two CMMV near Panata Island; and one Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy ship off Lawak Island.

Trinidad said the figure was logged as of Monday afternoon, higher than the 45 Chinese ships sighted in the WPS on April 10.

Meanwhile, professor Don Mclain Gill, geopolitical analyst and lecturer of the International Studies Department of De La Salle University, noted that the country is on the right track as it handles with “clarity, transparency and consistency” the WPS issues.

“The government of the Philippines particularly under President Marcos Jr. has emphasized that we uphold the 2016 Arbitral Ruling and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), which are enough to let us know our legitimacy in terms of the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

He urged Filipinos to continue to support the government.

“What we should now be focused on are its long-term implications and this is where we should show our unity in order to ensure that the efforts of civil society also align with the efforts that our government is putting in and that is basically the whole-of-the nation approach that we are trying to pursue,” he sai