‘Balikatan’ to simulate defense of Batanes
BASCO, Batanes, Philippines — Filipino and American troops will train to defend an island province facing Taiwan from potential aggressors as part of the biggest-ever “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercise.
Officials from the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) briefed local executives on the scheduled drills in the coming days to avoid panic among residents of Batanes, located 148.16 kilometers (80 nautical miles) from Taiwan’s southernmost tip.
The planned activities will include an air assault, a method of insertion through helicopters, to seize back a key terrain.
“There’s a scenario where the island gets occupied by a fictitious country and the training troops will take it back,” Nolcom deputy commander for training Lt. Col. Loel Egos said.
Soldiers will also simulate the transport of the state-of-the art High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) — which the United States supplied to Ukraine since the Russian invasion — at sea using a landing craft, “depending on the weather.”
The Himars has been used in live-fire exercises during previous and current Balikatan exercises, but Egos said there would be no test-firing in Batanes.
Filipino and American troops will likewise conduct a nonstandard maritime and free fall infiltration, similar to the parachute training at Basco Airport on April 10 that sent some residents into panic.
“Our residents got worried because of the tensions between China and Taiwan. But if there was none, we wouldn’t be so concerned,” Batanes Gov. Marilou Cayco said.
The local government quickly issued an advisory to clarify that the event had nothing to do with the ongoing tensions in Taiwan.
Cayco said she and other local officials were “in favor” of the Balikatan being conducted in the province, although this has to be explained to residents to clear their concerns.
Only three of 111 activities planned in Northern Luzon are in Batanes.
This year’s Balikatan, which runs from April 11 to 28, is the largest to date and is being held amid China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea and against Taiwan.
Cayco said she was also seeking investments to build seaports and airports in the island province amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan.
The province, which has been calling for major infrastructure development for a long time, is anticipating hosting thousands of Filipino repatriates in the event of a crisis over Taiwan.
In Cagayan, which will host two of the additional sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), about 4,000 villagers took to the streets on Monday night to oppose the hosting of American soldiers and equipment in the province.
Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba led the protesters at Rizal Park in Tuguegarao City to push back against the inclusion of two sites in his province under Edca.
Lighting candles and carrying banners opposing the new Edca sites in the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Santa Ana town and the Cagayan North International Airport in Lal-lo town, the protesters staged a prayer rally and called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to scrap the expanded Edca sites.
They also assailed the military drills held in the province on April 9, or two days before the formal opening of the Balikatan.
According to the US Marine Corps, soldiers from the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment based in Hawaii had trained their Filipino counterparts with small unmanned aircraft systems or drones in separate events in Santa Ana and Lal-lo.
Dr. Johanna Ulita, Gattaran Emergency Hospital medical officer who joined the protesters, told the Inquirer that the war games would “endanger Cagayan” because it is a neighboring area of Taiwan.
“Why put our province in danger? The war exercises here should be canceled,” she added.
At the rally, Mamba said he was not opposing the president, but the government’s decision to include Cagayan among the Edca sites.
He said the “potential China-Taiwan war” would bring “chaos” to the province as he also questioned the lack of coordination and consultation, noting that the war games started “without us knowing.”
Mamba earlier called acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. a “liar” for claiming that he was no longer opposing the inclusion of Cagayan in Edca.
A resolution supporting the war games in Cagayan is still pending approval at the provincial board.