MANILA — The 2023 Balikatan exercises between the Philippines and the United States will focus more on maritime defense, coastal defense, and maritime domain awareness.
The Balikatan or “shoulder-to-shoulder” is the largest annual Philippine-led bilateral exercise of the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the US Armed Forces.
For the first time, this year’s activities will involve live fire exercises, specifically in the waters off Zambales.
Col. Michael Logico, the spokesperson of the Balikatan 2023, said unlike in the past, some activities this year would be held “outside our traditional training areas.”
“Balikatans in the past were held inside military camps, but now we are venturing outside our traditional training areas. The reason is, in CERAB and Fort Magsaysay, it’s a landlocked training area. What you can only exercise there are the land and air components. There’s nothing you can do with the Navy,” Logico told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo on Wednesday.
“The only way you can test the interoperability between the service components is to go into the littoral areas,” he added.
During the live fire exercise at sea, Filipino and American troops will fire at and sink a target vessel, an old fishing boat, some 12 nautical miles off Zambales.
“We are going to fire at a target. We have a target vessel that the US procured for this purpose. The HIMARS, our artillery will not be firing into open water, but to a target. We’ve been able to acquire a decommissioned and old fishing boat measuring a little over 200 feet and we will tow it out into the water and we will hit it with all the weapon systems we have—ground, Navy and air,” Logico, who is also the director of the Joint and Combined Training Center of the AFP Education, Training and Doctrine Command, explained.
He went on, “We will have smaller targets but these will be for the smaller artillery. We have to deconflict how we hit those targets. Those targets have been cleared and stripped of all toxic materials per requirement of the DENR… to make sure that when it sinks, it will not pose a hazard to future navigation and not endanger the ecosystem subsurface.”
This year’s iteration of the joint military training between the AFP and US Armed Forces will also include cyber defense exercises.
“The cyber domain is very important because a lot of our subsystems in command and control, and intelligence all rely on cyber domain. It is also easily compromised when an adversary so decides and has a capability to undermine our capabilities,” Logico noted.
He then continued, “This is long overdue that we pay attention to the cyber domain. From the planning conducted last year, we will be creating scenarios involving cyber-attacks. It’s basically hardening and strengthening our cyber systems.”
More than 17,000 Filipino and American soldiers are set to join the Balikatan 2023, described as the largest iteration of the joint training exercises.
Around 12,000 of the soldiers will come from the US military while around 5,000 will be from the AFP. A hundred more from the Australian Defense Force will join and take part in smaller events, mostly land-based exercises.
There will also be observers from Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, the United Kingdom, France, and India.
“The presence of observers helps carry over our strategic message back to their countries. They can get the message across to their leadership that this is the effect of this exercise, the regional implications and the training benefits that serve both sides,” Logico said.
“It also opens the possibility of widening the exercise to more than just a bilateral exercise. There’s a possibility we can expand this to a multilateral exercise if need be. Sometimes, it’s also reciprocal. They can also invite us to observe their exercises,” the Balikatan spokesperson added.
This year’s Balikatan will be held from April 11 to 28 in various areas in the country, including Palawan, Antique, and parts of Northern Luzon.
Asked if the exercises would factor in the West Philippine Sea problem with China, Logico asserted that “every country has the inalienable and absolute right to defend its territory.”
“There is no excuse for us not to do this,” he added. “A treaty [Mutual Defense Treaty] exists and we are bound by treaty obligations to conduct this activity. Second, we are exercising inside our territory… It all boils down to an improvement in our combat capability and readiness.”
Logico said the joint exercises are not meant to provoke any country.
“This exercise is for the defense of the country… With or without the MDT, we should be prepared to defend our country by ourselves. But we cannot do that unless we upgrade our skills. That’s what Balikatan is for,” he noted. “This is not a provocation. We are not provoking anybody by simply exercising.”
According to Logico, the US Armed Forces will be bringing in military assets, including weapon systems, ships and aircraft, while the AFP will be using its newly-acquired frigates, FA-50 jets and artillery in the Balikatan.
“On the AFP side, our 105mm Howitzers, 155mm Howitzers, two of our Navy ships, frigates and our FA-50s, together with the Super Tucanos and Black Hawk helicopters. The US will bring in their HIMARS, Patriot missiles, Avengers, M29s. This will be an exchange of skill and knowledge when it comes to joint operations. When we train with the Americans, it’s always an opportunity for us to learn something new,” Logico said.
“When I started Balikatan, I thought the US had and knew everything. I discovered they are just like us. They are also operating with certain degrees of uncertainty… You’ll be surprised, they also have something to learn from us as well,” he concluded.