By Aaron Recuenco
Amid the perceived shift-to-China policy of the Duterte administration, the United States military is planning to increase the number of American soldiers participating in the annual military exercise with the Philippine Army.
And there seems to be no problem with the Philippine Army, as it even welcomed the proposal of the US Army Pacific Command (PACOM).
From less than 1,000 soldiers, who usually join the US-Philippine armies Salaknib military exercises, the number is expected to balloon to some 1,700, or a brigade-size number, according to Army spokesman Demy Zagala.
“There is a proposed concept to expand the Salaknib through the participation of more troops from the USARPAC… it is still a proposal, it’s a proposed concept and although both armies are committed to it, we’re still waiting for the final plan. The planning is in process,” said Zagala.
Salaknib is based on the Ilokano word which means shield. The bilateral exercise between the Philippine Army and USARPAC started in 2015. It is usually held every March of the year and is considered as a pre-deployment of Americans leading to the bigger annual Balikatan exercises which are usually being held every April.
The exercise aims to enhance the capabilities and interoperability of both forces in conventional and joint and combined operations. It also aims to enhance skill competencies in counter-terrorist operations.
Zagala said the army-to-army exercises between the two countries have been helping the Philippine Army a lot in terms of further enhancing the skills of Filipino soldiers.
“We hope to learn from the Americans, how they structure their brigade command team and we can learn from their best practices. We want to adopt that,” said Zagala.
The official was referring to the structure of the American Army brigade structure which he said showed a complete package when it came to combat operations.
The American Army brigade, for instance, has its own infantry, artillery, armor, signal, and aviation.
In an attempt to adopt the American Army brigade structure in the Philippine setting, the military leadership earlier created the First Brigade Combat Team in December last year.
“The Army, as part of its modernization and reorganization, will organize territorial defense divisions with brigade combat teams as its main maneuver force,” said Zagala.
“The Philippine Army participates in exercises with the USARPAC to gain knowledge necessary for the capability development of its own Brigade Combat Team,” he added.
Despite the push of President Duterte to be friendly with China, a lot of Filipino soldiers still obtain training programs from the United States and hold regular military exercises with American soldiers.
The Philippines is locked in a territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Seas—and the aggressive reclamation and building of structures in the disputed areas create distrust among Filipinos, including soldiers, on China.