March 15, 2023
MANILA — Filipino and American troops will sink a target vessel near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea when the two allies carry out next month their largest joint military exercise to date, a military official told the Inquirer on Tuesday.
The Philippines and the United States have ramped up defense cooperation under President Marcos in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its potential invasion of Taiwan and will put on their biggest exercise in history with the participation of 17,000 troops from both sides. This is nearly twice the 8,900 soldiers who joined last year.
The annual joint military exercises — called “Balikatan” or “shoulder-to-shoulder” that will run from April 11 to 28 — will feature some 12,000 US soldiers and 5,000 Filipino troops. Australia will send about a hundred soldiers, while like-minded countries will join as observers.
The activities will be held across Northern Luzon and the provinces of Palawan and Antique.
The anticipated sinking exercise of an old fishing vessel will be held some 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles) off Zambales, or about 185 km (100 nautical miles) from Panatag Shoal which China seized from the Philippines in 2012, according to Balikatan spokesperson Col. Michael Logico.
He said it would be conducted by the two countries for the first time as the forthcoming drills focus on “maritime defense, coastal defense and maritime domain awareness.”
“We will be sinking a target vessel using a combination of artillery naval gunfire and aviation weapons… We will be firing HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), our artillery … a combination of Philippine Air Force and US Air Force rockets and bombs, and our frigates,” Logico said of the sinking exercise.
The US Army will also hold its first Patriot missile air-defense exercise in the country as part of a coastal defense live-fire exercise, Logico added.
Last year, the United States deployed the Patriot, which stands for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target,” as part of a mobilization exercise for the Balikatan drills. It was not used for live-fire training then.
Such a weapon system, touted as one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems, was provided by the United States to Ukraine to counter Russian missile and drone attacks. It can track and shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft with a minimum flight time of less than nine seconds and can travel up to 70 km to a target.
“This Balikatan seems to be designed to test operational concepts to enhance strategic deterrence posture of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea,” Rommel Jude Ong, a former vice commander of the Philippine Navy, told the Inquirer.
He said the large-scale deployment of American troops was a logistics exercise “to assess how it can rapidly deploy a large number of troops and equipment in theater.”
The sinking exercise would likewise test the Philippine Navy’s sea denial strategy, he said.
“It is premised on the idea that a land-based anti-ship missile can defend the country’s waters from any adversary’s naval shipping, even from a distance,” he pointed out.
Prelude to Balikatan
The use of the Patriot, meanwhile, would allow the AFP to understand “the need for an anti-air defense system which can protect our land and critical infrastructures from conventional ballistic threats,” Ong said.
When asked if the upcoming joint exercise could stir up China, Logico said: “We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory. We are here to show that we are combat-ready.”
The defense of the Philippine archipelago from potential foreign aggressors is also the focus of the ongoing joint drills between the armies of the Philippines and the United States.
About 3,000 soldiers from the Philippine Army and the US Army are taking part in the annual “Salaknib” (shield in Ilocano) Exercise, which was first held in 2014,
The Army, the Philippine military’s largest service branch, is shifting its focus to territorial defense from insurgency amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
“We will now be training on scenarios that would require us to work together to face adversaries from out of the country,” Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said on Monday on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of Salaknib at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province.
“We will focus on defense operations such as air defense and defense from the shorelines,” he added.
This year’s Salaknib, considered a prelude to the Balikatan exercises, is being conducted in two phases across northern Luzon, including Fort Magsaysay, one of the first five agreed locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a deal that gives the US access to Philippine bases for joint training and prepositioning of equipment.