August 23, 2023
MANILA – Filipino and Australian troops trained for the first time together on Monday in the defense and recapture of territory from mock invaders in this coastal town facing the West Philippine Sea, amid festering maritime tensions between Manila and Beijing.
The air assault drills, which also involved a small contingent of American troops, were carried out as the Philippines was making a new attempt to deliver supplies in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, two weeks after one of its supply boats was prevented from doing so by China Coast Guard (CCG) ships using water cannons.
Australian diplomats and ranking military officials broke into applause as they watched the combined training forces raise the Philippine flag in the “seized” territory following a successful raid on Tarumpitao Airfield, one of Palawan’s critical installations.
Close air support was provided by Royal Australian Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, one of the world’s most lethal fighters, as well as E-7A Wedgetail surveillance aircraft.
Participating soldiers had been dropped off in a nearby airfield a day earlier by US Marine Corps MV-22B Ospreys launched from one of the Royal Australian Navy’s largest warships, the 27,000-ton HMAS Canberra.
During the exercise, forces of the fictional adversary, called “Calabania,” had supposedly taken over and turned the airstrip and the nearby beach into a fortress before the joint forces regained control.
The drills were part of the first Exercise “Alon” (Waves), the largest joint military exercise so far staged by the Philippines and Australia, the only other country with a visiting forces agreement with Manila, aside from the United States.
Alon is part of the Indo-Pacific Endeavor, Canberra’s flagship international engagement activity in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean regions, which aims to enhance security, stability, and stronger partnerships.
Some 2,000 personnel, consisting of 1,200 from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, 1,200 from the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and 150 from the US Marine Corps, are taking part in the drills set from Aug. 13 to Aug. 31.
“Exercises like these are critical because it’s through these we are putting our words into action. Through these we are increasing our interoperability, we are learning from each other so that the two countries cannot only protect our countries, but also contribute to collective security of our very important region,” Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Hae Kyong Yu told reporters after the demonstration.
Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos said the exercises had been planned months in advance and had nothing to do with the Philippines’ latest conflict with China.
On Aug. 5, one of the Philippine Navy’s supply boats was forced to turn back after CCG vessels used water cannons to prevent it from bringing provisions to the troops stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship serving as a Philippine outpost in Ayungin.
“The training has been planned for months before and we can’t relate it to the recent incidents. We have to hone our skills,” Carlos said during a press conference aboard HMAS Canberra.
Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton, ADF’s commander of joint operations, echoed this, saying: “It’s a contingency plan so there’s not an immediate threat that’s presented that we’re working against.”
“Our job is to defend our respective nations… to make sure our military can exercise in a highly effective manner and we’d like to do that with like-minded partners,” he said.
“We work together to build that level of cooperation and interoperability should we confront problems in the future,” he added.
Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles will travel to the Philippines this week to witness the first amphibious landing exercise between the two allies in Zambales on Friday, as part of Exercise Alon.
Also on Monday, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri reiterated his call to relax procurement rules for military hardware to help state security forces in defending the country from China’s aggressive actions.
Zubiri said the proposed amendments to the Government Procurement Reform Act, should be aimed at easing the system in acquiring military equipment and in promoting the growth of homegrown defense manufacturers.
The procurement system, he said, may still be “stringent, but speedy so that recipients will get the right equipment at the right price, at the right time.”
“Government procurement reforms should lead to the expedited purchase of defense equipment the country needs to protect its territory, especially from the illegal incursions of China in the West Philippine Sea,” Zubiri said in a statement.
“We need to procure the best, but not necessarily the cheapest equipment, because in military spending, the cheapest is not [necessarily] the best,” he added.