Blast that ship: Ready, aim, fire!

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FOR the first time in their 38-year history, Filipino and American forces participating in this year’s “Balikatan” (literally means shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise will be using all their available weapons to bombard and sink a decommissioned World War II-era corvette this coming April 26.

This was confirmed by Col. Michael Logico, Executive Agent of Balikatan 2023 Philippines, shortly after the opening ceremonies of the annual Philippines and US military exercise held at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, on Monday April 11, 2023.

US soldiers carry a Javelin shoulder-launched antitank missile past a US M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a joint military exercise called “Balikatan,” at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, Thursday, April 13, 2023.

Logico said the decision to undertake a “sinking exercise,” also known as “Sinkex” in military parlance, was done in line with the goal of “doing something different” every year.

“Every year, we have to do something different, so in the previous Balikatans we would [undertake] exercises [with] the Army and the Air Force through a live-fire: what we [had] never done before is to exercise all three components, Army, Navy, Air Force. We cannot [hold the] exercise [for] the Navy in Crow Valley [in Tarlac] or Fort Magsaysay [in Nueva Ecija] because [both provinces are] landlocked area[s] so we really have to go to the littoral areas,” he added.

And to ensure that these services will not just fire their weapons at the waters sans any particular target, Logico said they decided to simulate a threat coming from the sea.

“They [Balikatan participants] have to fire at a target, closer to what we would expect in actual threat, which is an intrusion coming from an adversary by sea. How will they do that? They will do it through a Navy ship so we will provide the target, and the target to sink is PS-31 [ex-BRP Pangasinan], which was decommissioned in March 2021. It is a very old Philippine Navy ship,” Logico explained.

The World War II-era BRP Pangasinan (PS-31) at CARAT Philippines 2011.

The BRP Pangasinan is a former US Navy patrol craft escort constructed in 1943 and donated to the Philippines in 1948. It served the Philippine Navy for 73 years before it was decommissioned.

The Sinkex will take place on April 26, in an area some 12 nautical miles off San Antonio, Zambales, well within Philippine territorial waters.

Logico said every available weapons system of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and participating US units will be brought to bear in this exercise.

“Every weapons system of the AFP and the United States will be [utilized, including] their HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket System]. My only hope is it [ex-BRP Pangasinan] does not sink until we utilize all our weapons systems,” Logico added.

A US trooper shows a Carl Gustaf recoilless anti-tank rifle to a Filipino soldier.

Logico said the Sinkex would show that the AFP is “capable” of conducting combined arms operations with its services and its allies.

“It demonstrates that we are competent in employing combined arms and joint capabilities, we are demonstrating that we are combat ready, we have that capacity to deliver fires on a target, from the land, from the air and from the sea,” he stressed.

PBBM gets Sinkex briefing

LOGICO also said that he also briefed President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. about the April 26 Sinkex along with an invite to witness the event first hand.

He added that the Chief Executive seems “excited” about the Sinkex and expressed willingness to come to watch the exercise.

“I briefed the President myself, he said, yes, he’ll be coming,” Logico said.

And when asked if China was discussed in his briefing or its activities in disputed waters, the military official said they did not.

“I don’t recall discussing China with him, we did not discuss China,” Logico said.

Also, he said that the exercise merely intends to demonstrate the combat readiness of the AFP and not anything else.

“Any exercise that we do is a demonstration of combat readiness, that interpretation may mean different things depending on who you ask, to us it is a demonstration of confidence that we can actually perform and execute our mandate,” Logico explained.

He hastened to add, however, that the training might be construed differently from the point of view of possible adversaries.

“If you are the adversary, it is a deterrence but we are just performing this exercise for the value of the training it provides, which is an opportunity for us to operate and to exercise together with our friends and allies,” Logico stressed.

‘Balikatan’ not related to Taiwan issue

BALIKATAN Philippine Exercise Director Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine said the annual exercise, which runs from April 11 to 28, is in no way related to the ongoing tension in Taiwan or the simmering maritime territorial dispute in the South China Sea with Beijing.

“The Balikatan exercise will not in any way affect the tensions going on around us, particularly Taiwan or in the South China Sea because the Balikatan is a [yearly] activity of the US and the AFP as part of the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board, and the MDT [Mutual Defense Treaty],” he pointed out.

Licudine also stressed that the exercise is just meant to strengthen the interoperability of both the Philippine and US militaries.

“The [objective of the] exercise is just [to strengthen] our interoperability and our cooperation at the military level so it doesn’t in anyway affect the tensions and it should be seen separately between allied nations,” he added.

In the same vein, Balikatan US Exercise Director representative Marine Maj. Gen. Eric Austin said Filipino and American troops have been doing the bilateral exercise for 38 years and this year, as in previous ones, is not related to any tensions.

“I would just reinforce, I would just say that we have been doing this for 38 years every April and it’s tremendously important for us to train together as allies and partners but it is in no way tied to any ongoing tensions,” he added.

Meanwhile, Licudine also emphasized the importance of the Balikatan to the two militaries.

“It builds interoperability, enhances capabilities, and demonstrates mutual defense of the Philippine sovereign territory,” he added.

Austin also said Balikatan is an important opportunity to train shoulder-to-shoulder and build trust and confidence that will allow Philippine and US forces to respond to crises and contingencies as a team.

AFP modernization

AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Andres Centino, for his part, said Balikatan will allow the Filipino military to use its most modern weapons systems and newly developed doctrines in projecting its credible defense posture.

“For the AFP, in particular, this year’s Balikatan exercise is most timely, as we fast-track the enhancement of our capabilities for maritime security and domain awareness, as well as our employment concept of newly acquired equipment and weapons systems under our modernization program and application of newly developed doctrines—with the end in view of projecting a credible defense posture,” he said.

AFP assets to be used in this year’s Balikatan may include the newly acquired ATMOS 155mm self-propelled howitzers, 105mm howitzers, S-70i Black Hawk helicopters, Embraer A-29 Super Tucano attack planes, FA-50 jet fighters, T-129 Atak helicopters, SF-260 light bombers, AW-109 and MD-520MG light attack helicopters, fast frigate patrol ships, and landing docks.

The annual exercise aims to optimize the use of the AFP joint training areas under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, as well as strengthen interagency collaboration.

Centino said these are all part of the “exercise goals” that they believed would make for a dynamic and relevant iteration of this year’s Balikatan.

“The annual Philippines-United States Balikatan exercise is one of the long-standing activities between our two countries that has paved the way for an enhanced defense cooperation, military-to-military collaboration, and mutual commitments, which are all aimed at promoting our shared goals of a more secure global community,” he pointed out.

Centino noted that gains made in the 2022 exercise reflect the two nations’ determination and commitment, as both were able to enforce full implementation of the Balikatan exercise after a two- year hiatus due to the pandemic.

“Given the success and lessons from the 2022 Balikatan exercise, there were enough reasons to put a framework together for this year’s exercise that would build on all that had been previously achieved,” Centino said.

Largest in Balikatan history

ALSO, the AFP chief noted with gladness that this year’s iteration of Balikatan is the largest ever in history with a total of 17,680 Filipino, American and Australian participants.

“The 38th Philippines-US Balikatan iteration will have a total of 17,680 participants, making it the largest-ever exercise of the AFP and the US Armed Forces, as well as our counterparts from the Australian Defense Force,” Centino said.

The AFP also expanded this year’s exercise by inviting military observers from partners in the region and other nations under the International Observers Program.

“We believe that Balikatan is also an opportunity to deepen our collaborations that would enable appropriate and timely actions whenever and wherever needed. On this note, let me welcome our exercise observers from our Asean neighbors, friends, allies and partners. Your presence today makes this event a collaboration that goes beyond borders,” Centino said.

He called Balikatan 2023 another defining moment, saying the magnitude of this year’s exercise is a testament to the “deepening alliance between and among our countries.”

Centino said major events planned for this year’s exercises include the command post exercise, cyber defense exercise, field training exercise, and the humanitarian civic assistance.

“All these major events are intended to ensure the achievement of the end state of our Balikatan 2023 Exercises: to further develop mutual defense capability; to enhance cyber defense operations; and strengthen the country’s maritime security and domain awareness, among others,” he said.

Image credits: AP/Aaron Favila, US Navy