By Francis Wakefield
About 4,000 Philippine troops, 3,500 American soldiers, and 50 Australian Defence Force (ADF) members will participate in the biggest annual military exercise between the United States and the Philippines known as “Balikatan” which opens Monday at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Y. Kim will be the guest of honor and speaker in the opening ceremony to be attended by high-ranking officials from both the Philippines and the US.
Also expected to attend the opening ceremony to be held at the Tejeros Hall, AFP Commissioned Officers Club, Camp Aguinaldo, are Philippine Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna who will represent Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Benjamin Madrigal Jr.
Lt. Gen. Gilbert I. Gapay, the AFP’s Southern Luzon Command (SoLCom) Chief is the Exercise Director for the Philippine side, while Brigadier General Chris McPhillips, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, is the Exercise Director for the US side.
Balikatan 2019, the 35th iteration of the annual military drill, is a Tagalog phrase for “shoulder-to-shoulder” which characterizes the spirit of the exercise and represents the partnership between the US and the Philippines.
Throughout Exercise Balikatan, the AFP, US Armed Forces, and ADF will carry out information exchanges and live training events. These are aimed at enhancing the militaries’ interoperability during the planning and execution of joint operations to advance security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
During Balikatan 2019, American and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, and counterterrorism response.
All events will take place in Luzon, Palawan, and Mindoro until April 12, 2019.
New US fighter jets
According to US Balikatan organizers, this is the first time that new and more sophisticated fighter jets from the United States will be used during this year’s exercises.
“This will be the first Exercise Balikatan to incorporate the USS Wasp paired with the United States Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II aircraft. Together they represent an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the US Balikatan organizers disclosed.
USS Wasp (LHD-1) is a United States Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship, and the lead ship of her class. She is the tenth USN vessel to bear the name since 1775, with the last two ships named Wasp being aircraft carriers. She was built by the Ingalls Shipbuilding division of Litton in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The F-35B Lightning II multi-role fighter is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighters. The fifth-generation combat aircraft is designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions. It has three main models: The F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, the F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C carrier-based catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) variant.
The US Balikatan organizers said participating in Balikatan demonstrates their ability to forward deploy in support of an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occurs.
Balikatan 2019 will also bring together Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members for an International Observers Program. The program aims to promote greater defense cooperation with ASEAN and other key allies and partners, show multinational coordination where the observers can mutually exchange meaningful ideas and best practices, and showcase the joint and combined air, sea, and ground operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and US Armed Forces.
This year’s Balikatan focuses on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges.
“Exercises like Balikatan strengthen international partnerships and the participating militaries’ abilities to rapidly respond to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” the Balikatan organizers said.
The AFP Northern Luzon Command will exercise command, control, and supervision in implementing the rules and regulations for visiting forces as well as monitor all BK35-2019 training events which will be conducted on its area of responsibility.
Major Erickson C. Bulosan, Public Information Office Chief of NoLCom, earlier said several activities are included in this year’s Balikatan like the Staff Exercise (STAFFEX), Joint Inter-Operability Event (JIOE), Combined Inter Operability Event (CIOE), and the Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA).
Bulosan said the AFP aims to strengthen the long-standing relationship between the PH-US through exercises and operational cooperation for mutual benefit of involved forces.
They will also ensure the safe and successful conduct of PH-US Balikatan 35-2019, together and in coordination with all stakeholders in different sites within Northern Luzon Command area of responsibility.
Prior to the opening of the exercises, Filipino, American and Australian forces started conducting humanitarian and civic assistance activities in Luzon as part of this year’s Philippines-United States Balikatan Exercises.
Personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), United States Armed Forces, and Australian Defense Force (ADF), all under the ambit of the US alliance, began their Engineering Civic Action Program last March 12, in Tarlac, Batangas, Laguna, and Bataan.
The AFP said the program seeks to construct medical facility and classroom buildings in selected communities in the areas.
The beneficiaries of the class room buildings are the Don Eulogio Luistro Elementary School in Bulsa, San Juan, Batangas; Victor De Guia Elementary School in Balian, Pangil, Laguna; and Pag-Asa Elementary School in Orani, Bataan Province. The local government of Brgy. San Pedro in Moncada, Tarlac will receive a one-story medical clinic.
Medical teams have also been deployed to conduct health engagements in the areas. Communities will benefit from free consultations, hygiene kits distribution, feeding program, and veterinary care. The teams will also share information on family planning, health, environment protection, and disaster preparedness.