In a first, US defense chief to visit PH for Balikatan

The United States and the Philippines on Monday started its annual military exercises, as China continues to assert its sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

This is the 32nd time that forces from the US and the Philippines will get together for the Balikatan exercises. But there are quite a few firsts happening this year.

One of the things that sets this year's Balikatan from previous ones is the arrival of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in the Philippines to observe some of the exercises. This makes Carter the first US defense chief to personally observe the exercises.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the co-exercise director of Balikatan for the US side, said Carter was to observe some of the movement of troops in Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac, and is expected to board a vessel and observe some of the maritime security exercises as well.

This could very well be the first time that a US defense secretary makes an appearance in the exercises.

The US armed forces will fire a HIMARS or high mobility artillery rocket system. HIMARS is one of the newer multiple-launch rocket systems acquired by the US and it will be the first time that it will be used in the Philippines.

While there will be multiple sites for Balikatan, this will be the first year where in they will be training to address a single, progressive scenario.

It has been mentioned that soldiers will be training to address a magnitude 7.2 earthquake and slowly build response as the crisis worsens.

Command and control of the two forces is key in humanitarian crises and in military situations, so this remains the primary objective of the US and the Philippines.

For the first time, the deputy chief of staff - the third highest officer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines - will be heading the main battle staff from general headquarters, elevating the exercise to the highest level of Philippine military.

Eighty personnel from the Royal Australian Navy will be actively participating this year, including a special operations exercise simulating the retake of a captured oil and gas platform somewhere in the western coast of Palawan.

Eight members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces will also be observing. Ambassadors of both Japan and Australia were present at the opening ceremony as well.

Multinational observer forces from Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam were also present.

Officials always stress that the Balikatan is a broad military exercise, not created as a response to any specific security situation.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the western command in Palawan and co-exercise director of Balikatan for the Philippines, said this was not a move against any country, and that the Philippines - as the weakest armed forces in the region - needs these alliances and exercises to tide them over until the time comes that they are able to sufficiently establish an independent and credible defense.

But Toolan said a potential crisis in the South China Sea is indeed one of the scenarios that commanders have considered.

He said that the Philippines and the US have already established a bilateral defense plan in that respect, something that Balikatan allows them to validate. Toolan said the US was awaiting the result of the arbitration case by the Philippines against China in order to plot out their next steps.

The Balikatan exercises for 2016 will run until the 15th of April.

Source: ABS-CBN

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