The Philippines and the United States will kick off today this year’s Balikatan military exercises amid concerns over China’s reclamation activities in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.
More than 11,000 Filipino and American troops will join the drills to be held simultaneously in different locations until April 30.
A total of 6,656 American soldiers will participate in the exercises, more than double the 2,500-strong contingent that joined in 2014. The number of Filipino participants, meanwhile, also increased to 5,023 from 3,000 last year.
Balikatan 2015 will also be a display of military assets, with the US deploying 76 aircraft and three naval vessels and the Philippines sending 15 planes and one ship.
Officials clarified that the event was not intended to be a show of force against China, which has been occupying disputed areas to assert its wide-reaching territorial claims.
“No specific threat was factored in. We are just looking at ways to enhance our capability to defend ourselves,” said Lt. Col. Marlowe Patria, the Philippine spokesman for Balikatan 2015.
Patria attributed the higher number of participants to the expanded coverage of disaster response drills, which will include the giving of relief to affected communities.
The opening rites for Balikatan 2015 will be held this morning at the military’s main headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, Philippine exercise director Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez and US exercise director Lt. Gen. John Toolan are expected to attend the event.
Balikatan 2015, the 31st iteration of the annual bilateral exercise, will be divided into three categories namely the command post exercise, field training exercise and humanitarian civic assistance.
The command post exercise will include activities related to marine security with live fire exercises.
Field training exercises will be held in Crow Valley in Tarlac, Basa Air Base and Clark Air Base both in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Marine Base Gregorio Lim and Naval Base Heracleo Alano, both in Cavite and Naval Station Leovigildo Gantiouqui in Zambales.
Humanitarian civic assistance events will be held in Puerto Princesa in Palawan and Panay in the Visayas.
Some military exercises have started even before the formal opening of Balikatan 2015.
Disaster risk reduction exercises started last April 7 in Camp Peralta in Capiz.
A total of 105 participants composed of 82 troops from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, 13 reservists from the 6th Regional Community Defense Group and 10 personnel from the Capiz Provincial Risk Reduction and Management Council underwent the Basic First Responders Training.
Lectures and practical exercises on basic life support, primary medical care, rescue procedures, and mass evacuation simulation were also conducted by the US Cooperative Health Engagement Team.
“One of the objectives of the training is to promote and enhance the capabilities of both the Philippines and US Armed Forces in terms of humanitarian and civic assistance during disasters and calamities,” said Maj. Ray Tiongson, spokesman for the Army’s 3rd division.
Filipino and American troops also kicked off the Indirect Fires Operations Subject Matter Expert Exchange Training at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija last April 13.
A total of 70 Filipino and 55 American servicemen participated in the drills.
The activity sought to improve the skills, competencies and capacity of the participants to conduct fire planning and indirect fire operations.