Manila Bulletin

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.

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