US fighter jets, warships for humanitarian mission

MANILA, Philippines --- The "Philippines-US Balikatan 2013 Exercise" formally kicked off yesterday in a ceremony at Camp Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.

More than 8,000 American and Filipino soldiers are taking part in this year's Balikatan war games, where a squadron of US F/A 18 fighter jets and flotilla of US warships will also be utilized. The exercise will consist of humanitarian civic assistance projects, senior leader engagements, a command post exercise, field training exercises, and maritime security and ship drills to enhance Philippine-US military interoperability and build military-to-military relations.

This year's Balikatan is the 29th iteration of the largest PH-US bilateral military exercise. Present during the opening ceremony were Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, Major General Virgilio Domingo, the Philippine Balikatan exercise director; and Brig. Gen. Richard L. Simcock II, the US Balikatan exercise director.

More than 8,000 combined Philippine and US military personnel are taking part in the exercise, which will take place at various locations in Central Luzon.

The exercise will consist of humanitarian civic assistance projects, senior leader engagements, a command post exercise, field training exercises, and maritime security and ship drills to enhance Philippine-US military interoperability, and build military-to-military relations.

Unique to this year's Balikatan "will be the use of MV-22B Ospreys" as ship-to-shore connectors during the conduct of the exercises. The MV-22B Osprey is an American multi-mission, military, tilt-rotor aircraft with both a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), and short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines is committed to defend itself from other countries amid security challenges posed by the territorial disputes at the West Philippine Sea.

Del Rosario made the statement at the opening of the "PH-US Balikatan 2013 Exercise" in Camp Aguinaldo.

The DFA chief noted that while the Philippines and the US continue to build on its alliance, key officials from both countries have had a series of high level exchanges and discussions centered on our security relationship over the past three months.

"In all these discussions, both sides reiterated their firm commitments as strategic partners and treaty allies... These key officials have pledged to work with us to build our own capacity to defend ourselves," said Del Rosario.

"And defend ourselves we will," he stressed, noting that the Philippines is now investing in its own defense at levels never seen before.

At the same ceremony, Thomas noted the strong cooperation between the Philippine and US militaries, which he said was again proven in the aftermath of super-typhoon Pablo that struck parts of Visayas and Mindanao four months ago.

"Through that tragedy, we saw the best of our partnership. Members of the US Armed Forces were here in the Philippines planning for this 'Balikatan' exercise when Pablo began its destruction. Within seven hours of the request from the Philippine Government to assist with the typhoon relief, the first US aircraft arrived here in Manila to begin rescue operations," he said.

The US envoy also highlighted the benefits of the many community service projects that take place under the umbrella of Balikatan. He particularly cited the construction of a footbridge in San Narciso, Zambales that will allow 50 residents of Barangay San Pasqual to cross the river to attend school and sell goods at the market. Thomas noted that before the footbridge's construction, residents in the areas had to travel 40 minutes by road.

"Shoulder-to-shoulder we stand together, ready to defend when necessary and assist when needed," Thomas said.

For his part, Domingo said the holding of the annual military and humanitarian exercise marks another milestone in the long-relations between Filipino and American forces.

"Today marks another milestone in the long standing relations of the Philippines and the United States of America," he said, adding that the deep and robust relations between the US and the Philippines can be manifested by the fact that both countries are willing to work "shoulder-to-shoulder" improving security stability and development.

"It is a means for us to reinforce once more the relationship between our two countries, a relationship founded on long time friendship and partnership that withstood the test of time," the Filipino military officer said.

Domingo also pointed out that this year's "Balikatan" reflects the leaderships' (of both nations) continuing desire to improve its defense engagement with each other.

The US military had earlier announced that it will deploy 20 air assets to support the more than 8,000 Filipino and American soldiers in their joint Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR)-focused military training in Central Luzon. These air assets will also provide air logistics support and services to both US and Philippine militaries' service members supporting BK13. Currently, 14 of the aircraft have already arrived in Clark Air Base, Pampanga last Monday while the others are expected to arrive within the week.

From the AFP's side, nine aircraft from the Philippine Air Force will be deployed to assist Filipino and American troops in the ongoing BK13 Activities while the Philippine Navy will deploy one of its Islanders and two vessels.

Balikatan 2013 is hosted annually in the Philippines. The exercise characterizes the longstanding Philippine-US partnership, deeply rooted in cooperation and a shared commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty. Balikatan 2013 is scheduled to conclude on April 17.

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