‘Balikatan’ levels up for PH maritime defense
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines and the United States on Tuesday opened their largest-ever joint military exercises, which will involve rocket bombardment to sink a decommissioned navy ship and simulate the recapture of an island, amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
More than 17,000 Filipino and American troops are taking part in the annual exercises dubbed “Balikatan,” Filipino for “shoulder to shoulder,” which for the first time will include a live-fire drill in waters off Zambales province.
“Through this exercise, the Philippine and US forces will sharpen our interoperability, increase our proficiency and complement our capabilities through collaboration, ensuring we are prepared to respond to real-world challenges together,” Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, US exercise director representative, said at the opening ceremony in Camp Aguinaldo.
About 12,200 American, 5,400 Filipino and just over 100 Australian soldiers, about twice as many last year, will participate in the 18-day Balikatan exercises.
The Americans will use their Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) precision rocket system, which has helped Ukrainian forces fighting the Russian invaders.
A decommissioned Philippine Navy ship BRP Pangasinan (PS-31), a former Miguel Malvar-class corvette, would be barraged by rockets from land, air and sea as part of a sinking exercise (Sinkex) off Zambales, in waters facing the West Philippine Sea, sections of which China is claiming.
The Sinkex would be the exercise’s highlight, according to Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine, Philippine exercise director. Invitations were sent to President Marcos and other senior government officials to witness the event on April 26.
The drills follow Monday’s conclusion of a three-day Chinese military exercise that simulated targeted strikes and a blockade of self-ruled, democratic Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
The Sinkex was originally planned in the Marcos family’s home province of Ilocos Norte in northern Luzon — around 300 kilometers from the southern portion of Taiwan — with meetings set between the military and local government in January. But in mid-March, the venue was transferred to Zambales in Central Luzon, close to Chinese-controlled Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
The original site was “not sufficiently prepared” for unloading the needed equipment, Licudine said.
But the Ilocos Norte government said the military did not explain why the planned major events in the province were moved to Zambales. At the time, the provincial government had already advised officials of the 21 towns and two cities to take precautionary measures for the live-fire drills.
Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., in early March told senators, including former Ilocos Norte Gov. and now Sen. Imee Marcos, who questioned the plan that Ilocos Norte was chosen as a site for the Balikatan because it was time to shift the drills to northern Luzon after previous exercises were held in other regions.
The military on Tuesday also addressed concerns raised by Zambales fishermen, who feared that the live-fire drills would disrupt their livelihood.
Col. Michael Logico, Balikatan spokesperson, said the military had coordinated its activities with local governments.
“The exercise will only last for two days. It’s a small inconvenience that we are asking from our fishermen. We empathize with their plight every time they go out and fish [as] they always run the risk of harassment,” Logico said.
“This exercise, in a way, is helping us secure and protect our fishermen by protecting our territorial waters and their traditional fishing grounds… This is precisely to advance maritime security in the area and to protect the livelihood of our fishermen,” he added.
Troops will also stage an amphibious landing in Palawan province, in waters close to Chinese military outposts in the Kalayaan Island Group, to simulate the retaking of an island held by an enemy.
“That is one of the core competencies of an armed forces. In order for us to protect our sovereign territory, we really have to drill and exercise how we are going to retake an island that has been taken away from us,” Logico said.
Military officials said that the drills were meant to boost the Philippines’ maritime defense and were not aimed at any country.
Troops from the Philippine Army, Philippine Marine Corps and US Army will also test-fire Javelin antitank missiles in Nueva Ecija province on Thursday, according to a military advisory.
“The Balikatan exercise will not affect the tensions going on around us particularly in Taiwan or the South China Sea. Balikatan is a year-to-year activity of the US and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines),” Licudine said.
Col. Medel Aguilar, the Philippine military spokesperson, said the exercises would enhance “tactics, techniques and procedures across a wide range of military operations.”
In Manila, police on Tuesday arrested two students who joined a lightning protest at the US Embassy to oppose Balikatan.
John Gabriel Magtibay, a student of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, and Joanne Pagkaliwangan of Far Eastern University were arrested for alleged vandalism and resistance and disobedience to authorities.
Police said the students, along with members of other activist groups, “suddenly appeared” in front of the US Embassy in Manila, and “intentionally threw a [container of] paint at the emblem of the said embassy and scampered away in… different directions.”
“During the apprehension, suspects seriously resisted by kicking and parrying the hands of the police officers but [they were] later [taken] into custody after a short scuffle,” the police said.