PHL, AUSSIE TROOPS ‘RETAKE’ ISLAND IN SOUTH CHINA SEA; US joins war games; joint patrols readied

By ALFRED G. GABOT, Editor in Chief

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan — Amid China’ aggressiveness raising tension to new heights over Beijing’s activities and claims in South China Sea, the Philippines and Australia, supported by American troops, conducted joint war exercises simulating  the “retaking’ of an island off Palawan in West Philippine Sea.

This as Australia and the Philippines approved joint patrols in South China Sea and this will start soon, according to visiting Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles in a press briefing after troops of the two countries successfully concluded joint military exercises in the Philippines in what they called first-ever “Exercise Alon” assault drills, supported by American troops.

President Ferdinand Marcos hailed some of the assault exercises which he and Marles witnessed off Zambales, describing it as an “extremely important” example of close cooperation.

As this developed, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, the Commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, flew to the Philippines and met with multinational defense leaders, including Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the head of the Philippine Western Command overseeing the South China Sea, to bolster the alliance of the United States, the Philippines, Australia and Japan.

Thomas also met with Australian Defence Force Chief of Joint Operations Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton; Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Commander-in-Chief Self-Defense Fleet Vice Adm. SAITO Akira; Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Adm. Toribio Adaci; Philippine Fleet Commander Rear Adm. Renato David; Naval Air Wing Commander of the Philippine Navy Commodore Juario Marayag; and Commander of the Philippine Air Force’s Tactical Operations Wing West Brig. Gen. Erick Quijada Escarcha.

The meeting coincided with port visits by three of the partner navies to Manila: the landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra (L02); the helicopter-carrying destroyer JS Izumo (DDH-183); and the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6).

Over the weekend, the leaders from the four militaries also embarked on a U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft for a flight over the South China Sea. During the flight, they were able to observe the maritime environment and discuss ways to increase interoperability, preserve regional stability, and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“Australia, Japan, the Philippines, United States, and the rest of the Pacific partner nations are committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region while adhering to the Law of the Sea,” Thomas said. “When we operate together, we demonstrate the importance of the freedom of navigation and reinforce the prosperity of all nations who rely on these critical waterways.”

The Seventh Fleet of the US Navy, headquartered in Japan, is the largest of the forward-deployed fleets. It operates as many as 70 ships, 150 aircraft, and over 27,000 sailors. It covers an area of 124 million square kilometers from bases in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.

More than 2,000 Australian and Philippine defense personnel and US Marines participated in the wargames that incorporate amphibious landing and air assault drills.

“We are working closely together, doing joint sails is something that we’ve been keen to pursue now for some time,” said “And our two defense forces have been working closely together about how to make that happen and to do that in the most effective way,” he also said.

“And we’re really pleased with the progress of those discussions, and we expect that the first of those joint patrols will happen in the not too distant future,” Marles added.

Meanwhile, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. on Sunday said joint patrols with Australia on the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) are now in the offing.

Brawner said the planning on the measure is ongoing after this has been approved by President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and the Australian government.

The exercises of the Australian and Filipino forces, backed by US Marines, included retaking an island seized by hostile forces in a large military drill on the northwestern Philippine coast.

Marcos and visiting Australian Defense Minister Marles watched the mock beach landings, assaults and helicopter insertion of forces on a Philippine navy base with Australians, 560 Filipinos and 120 U.S. Marines participating.

Australian, Filipino and American forces conducted air assault maneuvers in Rizal town in western Palawan province, which also faces the South China Sea.

Participating military assets include the helicopter landing dock, HMAS Canberra, frigate HMAS Anzac, with the landing dock BRP Davao Del Sur. Close-air support was provided by the Royal Australian Air Force F-35A “Lightning II” aircraft; Australian Army M-1A1 “Abrams” tank and two PMC amphibious assault vehicles, with airlift support by Darwin-based USMC MV-22B.
Marles said in a separate news conference with his Philippine counterpart, Gilberto Teodoro Jr., that the drills were aimed at promoting the rule of law and peace in the region.

“The message that we want to convey to the region and to the world from an exercise of this kind is that we are two countries committed to the global rules-based order,” Marles said. “We are committed to an idea of a world in which disputes are determined by reference to international law.”

“Peace is maintained through the protection of the global rules-based order and its functionality around the world and, in truth, around the world today, we see it under pressure,” Marles said.

Marles and Teodoro said in a joint statement that they would pursue plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea, which the Australian defense chief said may be launched soon.

 “Exercise Alon” included an air assault exercise in Palawan last Aug. 21, combined amphibious assault exercise in Zambales last Aug. 25, and live-fire training as the final phase in Capas, Tarlac on Aug. 31.

Participants in the exercises included 560 troopers from the AFP, and 1,200 from the ADF, with support from the 120 United States Marine Corps (USMC).

Participating assets included the helicopter landing dock HMAS Canberra and frigate HMAS Anzac, with the Tarlac-class BRP Davao Del Sur, close air support from RAAF F-35A Lightning II aircraft, Australian Army M-1A1 Abrams tank and two PMC amphibious assault vehicles.

“Exercise Alon” enhanced the forces’ capability in conducting combined operations and improved their tactics, techniques, and procedures on amphibious operations.

Department of National Defense Undersecretary Ireneo Espino, who represented Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., in the closing ceremonies, said the exercise allowed the ADF and AFP with support from US troops “to successfully conduct complex operations in response to simulated security threat but also open avenues for more interoperability and deeper people to people cooperation”.

“Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour or the IPE of which ‘Exercise Alon’ is a part presents a unique opportunity for the DND and the AFP to participate in and gather insights on regional security initiatives,” he added.

Espino said the exercise also serves as a venue for the Philippine Navy to strengthen its naval capabilities on maritime security while enhancing interoperability and linkages with its Australian counterparts.

“Considering that Australia is one of the only two defense partners with which the Philippines has a status of Visiting Forces Agreement, the IPE also advances our bilateral defense correlations,” he said.

“Exercise Alon” is part of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023 (IPE23) which started on Aug. 14 and will end on Aug. 31.

It is also the first bilateral amphibious training activity between the AFP and the ADF.

IPE23 is Australia’s flagship international engagement activity in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean regions promoting security, stability, and stronger partnerships through bilateral and multilateral engagement training, capacity building, and humanitarian efforts