PH, US troops hold war games amid virus threat
Not even the dangers posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic could stop the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the United States military from holding the 36th iteration of the "Balikatan" Exercise which officially kicked off the joint drills on Monday, April 12, at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
General Cirilito Sobejana, AFP Chief of Staff, declared the opening of Balikatan which comes at a time when China further tightened its grip in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and turning them into military bases, including some features located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Balikatan is an annual exercise between the Philippines and the United States. Balikatan is a Tagalog word for "shoulder-to-shoulder," which characterizes the spirit of the exercise and represents the partnership between the two allied countries.
The joint drill will be held from April 12 to April 23, according to Major Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson and this year's exercise director.
Arevalo said this year’s exercise will be held with strict observance of health protocols due to the prevailing pandemic.
The AFP and US armed forces made several adjustments to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19, reducing the number of participants from both militaries.
The AFP will have 736 participants while the US armed forces will have approximately 225 participants, Arevalo said.
This is lower compared to the 11,000 participants who committed to join when the exercise was cancelled in May last year due to the pandemic.
This year's Balikatan will include a bilateral staff exercise, close air support training, subject matter exchanges, maritime security training, and humanitarian and civic assistance activities that will be conducted in areas within the Northern Luzon Command (NOLCOM) and Southern Luzon Command (SOLCOM).
As part of the humanitarian and civic assistance activities, Filipino and American soldiers will build two classrooms and a daycare center in Plaridel, Bulacan, as well as a classroom in Atimonan and health center in Mauban, both in Quezon province.
"Though this year’s exercises are toned down because of the prevailing health crisis, which has affected not only the Philippines, but similarly the entire world – these circumstances, will however, not diminish nor hamper the real intent of the Balikatan Exercises – that is to foster a stronger and more robust military relationship, and interoperability between our two Armed Forces," Sobejana said.
Also present during the opening ceremonies were Defense Undersecretary Cesar Yano; US Embassy in the Philippines Chargé d'Affaires John Law; Col. Stephen Ma, Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) Chief and US Defense Attaché; and Col. Aaron Brunk, of the US III Marine Expeditionary Force, Officer in Charge for Exercise Support Group.
"The United States is proud to participate in the Balikatan Exercise, and we thank the Armed Forces of the Philippines for hosting US troops in ways that maintain the health and safety of both our militaries," said Law.
"Joint exercises like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability and the adaptability of U.S. and Philippine forces. The United States will continue to seek ways, even during the pandemic, to strengthen our security cooperation," he added.
Meanwhile, Col. Brunk hopes that the two militaries will "build upon each other and strengthen each other" during the two-week long exercise.
"May this exercise and this experience in the next couple of weeks add value to our partnership and our friendship," he said.