News

US, PHL STAGE BIGGEST WAR DRILLS IN 30 YEARS; Austin, Blinken reaffirm US will defend PHL in case of any attack

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

CAMP AGUINALDO/WASHINGTON D.C. – After the China and Taiwan exercises, the United States Navy joined the Philippines Navy in opening their biggest war drills in more than 30 years with nearly 18,000 soldiers in several areas in Luzon and near the disputed waters of South China Sea, joined by observer allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

Dubbed “Balikatan 2023,” the military drills followed the just concluded first phase of the joint US-Philippines army military exercises “Salacnib 2023” which included live fire training aimed at countering the aggressive China incursions in West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

The war drills started while the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo held their “two plus two” bilateral talks on security and other matters in Washington D.C.

In statement at their Washington meeting, Austin and Blinken reaffirmed the US commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between Manila and Washington to defend the Philippines in case of any air, sea or land attack.

The top foreign affairs and defense officials also agreed to “modernize” the two countries’ alliance amid the evolving security challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

The secretaries agreed to continue discussions on the nature of threats that may arise in different domains in the region, including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, and how to effectively respond to them.

In addition, they reaffirmed “shared determination to defend against external armed attack in the Pacific, including the South China Sea.”

At the same time, the two top US officials announced that US will commit $100 million for the development of some of the bases to be used by American forces, including expanding of runways and improving aviation systems.

The four officials also agreed to finalize plans for the resumption of “joint sails” between the US and Philippine Navies while confirming the possibility to include “like-minded partners” in multilateral maritime activities in the South China Sea “later this year.”

No country was specifically mentioned but Australian Ambassador to the Philippines HK Yu last month had disclosed that “conversation on the joint patrols with the US, Philippines and Japan in international waters are ongoing”.

This developed as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to take a front-row seat and personally observer on April 26 when Filipino and American troops display their ship-sinking capability near the Panatag Shoal and Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, a part of the Masinloc town of Zambales.

Meanwhile, both the Philippines and the US called on China to “fully comply with the final and legally binding” 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea.

“The Award, which was constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, is final and legally binding on the parties, and validates the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction with respect to its EEZ and continental shelf, including maritime areas in the vicinity of Reed Bank, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal also known in the Philippines as Recto Bank, Panganiban Reef, and Ayungin Shoal, respectively,” the four officials said in their joint statement.

Col. Michael Logico, executive director of Balikatan on the Philippine side, disclosed that Marcos, who is the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, is excited to attend the activity, the first ever sinking exercise to be conducted under the Balikatan since it started in the 1990s.

Logico said set to be sunk by both sides is the former BRP Pangasinan, a corvette decommissioned by the Philippine Navy two years ago.

Logico said the Americans will use their high mobility artillery rocket system or HIMARs during the ship-sinking exercise while the AFP will use every weapons system at its disposal.

 “We’re proud of the investments we’re making, and by the end of FY (fiscal year) ’23 we expect to have allocated more than $100 million in infrastructure investments at the new and existing EDCA sites. So those investments will spur job creation and economic growth in local Philippine communities,” Austin said during a joint briefing with the Philippines.

The Philippines and US agreed to expand the EDCA bases to include four new sites in Cagayan and Isabela provinces and the Balabac island in the southern tip of Palawan.

Austin revealed the planned infrastructure will support combined training, exercises and interoperability between the US and Philippine armed forces and the local civilian-led disaster preparedness and response capacities.

The EDCA bases  will also support community-based activities led by the United States Agency for International Development, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, capacity-building, access to safe water supplies, education, health care, sustainable fisheries management, biodiversity conservation and energy security.

Austin said expanding the EDCA puts the US in a position to better respond to and meet the needs of the Philippines in the event of a crisis like a natural disaster or a requirement to rapidly provide humanitarian assistance.

“I think it helps us not only work together, but it helps us address the needs of the Philippines as well,” Austin said. “And I think it’s essential to our ability to strengthen our combined deterrence posture.”

Before the “2+2 dialogue,” Secretary Manalo told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the Philippines and US have yet to discuss what the US may do with nine bases they now have access to following a statement of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that the bases may not be used to launch offensive attacks on foreign aggressors.

“We basically identified the sites. There will have to be, as in the case of the other sites, discussions on terms of reference, the type of activities … these all have to be agreed on … It will all depend on how discussions go,” Manalo said.

In Washington, the Pentagon has not specifically said what the four additional bases for US troops will be used for, except that work would include airport expansion and training involving naval assets.

Speaking at the Mount Samat National Shrine in Pilar, Bataan commemorating the Day of Valor (Araw ng Kagitingan), Marcos said that the Philippines is only giving the United States expanded access to its military bases to give the country aid during disasters and calamities, as four new bases are located in some of the Philippines’ most disaster-prone areas.

“Hindi tayo papayag, ang Pilipinas, hindi tayo papayag na gamitin ang mga bases natin para sa kahit anong offensive na action. Ito ay para lamang tulungan ang Pilipinas, pagka nangangailangan ng tulong ang Pilipinas,”  Marcos said.

“Ang ginagawa lamang natin ay ipagpatuloy natin na pinapatibay natin ang depensa ng ating teritorya, ang pagdepensa ng Republika,” the President pointed out.

“These are existing bases, ang kaibahan lang ng EDCA, we give our only existing treaty partner, the United States a chance to help us in any way for disaster relief. Pinili natin ito dahil ito ang pinakamadalas sa disaster,” Marcos said.

The four new sites for the US military to use under EDCA are the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan, Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan, Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela, and Balabac Island in Palawan.

Security experts said that the US sees the Philippine bases as potential location for rockets, missiles and artillery systems, just like the Subic Naval base and the Clark Air Force base which US controlled for years.

Filipino and American military officials disclosed that for the first time, “Balikatan 2023” will include live-fire drills in South China. The exercises will also include military helicopters landing on a Philippine island off the northern tip of Luzon, near Taiwan.

“Through this exercise, the Philippine and US forces will sharpen our inter-operability, increase our proficiency and complement our capabilities through collaboration, ensuring we are prepared to respond to real-world challenges together,” First US Marine Aircraft Wing commander Major-General Eric Austin said at the ceremonies opening the drills.

As part of the exercises, the US, Philippines and observer countries will stage an amphibious landing on Palawan, the closest Philippine landmass to the Spratly Islands, where Beijing and Manila have rival claims.

The exercises will also include a boat-sinking rocket assault in waters across the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait that will likely inflame China.

The Americans will also use during the exercises their Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the HIMARS precision rocket system.

America’s warships, fighter jets as well as its Patriot missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers and anti-tank Javelins, would be showcased, according to US and Philippine military officials.

In a live-fire drill the allied forces would stage offshore for the first time, Logico said US and Filipino forces would sink a 200-foot (61-meter) target vessel in Philippine territorial waters off the western province of Zambales this month in a coordinated airstrike and artillery bombardment.

“We will hit it with all the weapons systems that we have, both ground, navy and air,” Logico said.

That location facing the South China Sea and across the waters from the Taiwan Strait would likely alarm China, but Philippine military officials said the maneuver was aimed at bolstering the country’s coastal defense and was not aimed at any country.

On Monday, the US 7th Fleet deployed guided-missile destroyer USS Milius within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a Manila-claimed coral outcrop which China seized in the mid-1990s and turned into one of seven missile-protected island bases in the South China Sea’s hotly contested Spratlys archipelago. The US military has been undertaking such “freedom of navigation” operations for years to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims in the busy seaway.

The exercises will enhance “tactics, techniques and procedures across a wide range of military operations,” said Philippine military spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar.

With placards stating “No to US bases,” members of the League of Filipino Students held a lightning rally in front of the US Embassy on Roxas boulevard as American and Filipino troops prepared to open their annual bilateral exercises.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Army (PA) was set to conduct a live-fire exercise using the FGM-148 “Javelin” anti-tank system at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija on April 13.

“The ‘Javelin’ anti-tank weapon live-fire exercise will fire six missiles which will be fired by the 25th Infantry Division, US Army, PA, and PMC. This event will be facilitated by the ‘Javelin’ anti-tank trainers of (the) US Army. Senior leaders from both Armies will witness the event,” Army spokesperson Col. Xerxes Trinidad  said.

The FGM-148 “Javelin” missile has proven effective in neutralizing tanks and other armored vehicles in the conflict between Russian and Ukraine.

It is an American-made portable man-portable anti-tank systems system in service since 1996, and continuously upgraded.

Its fire-and-forget design uses automatic infrared guidance that allows the user to seek cover immediately after launch

Col.  Trinidad said the live-fire drills are designed to “execute and apply the skills learned and simulation exercise with the 25th Infantry Division, US Army and Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) as the training audience.”

He added that the “Javelin” lectures and simulations were conducted during the just concluded “Salaknib” exercises which took place last March 13 to April 4.

“This activity is part of subject matter expert exchange training for ‘Salaknib’ 2023 (SN23) and to be executed during ‘Balikatan’ 38 (BK38) timeline,” Trinidad said. (alfred.gabot@gmail.com/cmtpr1962@yahoo.com.ph)