Balikatan 2023: Filipino troops train with US counterparts on Javelin missile system

Jason Gutierrez and Basilio Sepe
Fort Magsaysay, Philippines
Balikatan 2023: Filipino troops train with US counterparts on Javelin missile system U.S. and Philippine soldiers fire Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles during the Balikatan exercises at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija province, northern Philippines, April 13, 2023.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

The Philippines won’t surrender an inch of its territory in the South China Sea, the country’s army chief declared Thursday, as Filipino and U.S. forces practiced firing Javelin missiles similar to those used by Ukraine against invading Russian forces.

Filipino soldiers joined their American counterparts in live-fire drills at this army base using the anti-tank weapons system on day 3 of the “Balikatan” (“Shoulder to Shoulder”) joint exercises, which the longtime allies are staging in and around the Philippines until April 28.  

Thursday’s live-fire drill in Nueva Ecija province was in keeping with his troops’ mission of protecting land and waters belonging to the nation, Philippine Army commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said. However, the top brass from both armies held back from stating openly that their forces were training together in preparation for a potential conflict with China over the disputed sea region or Taiwan.

“The exercises that we are doing are all in line with the order of our president, President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., for us to defend our territory and not give an inch of our territory,” Brawner told reporters. 

“So all of these are geared toward that, toward achieving his order and we are making sure that the Philippines, the entire country … would be ready in case a threat comes to our shores.”

A U.S. soldier displays a camouflaged rifle during the Balikatan joint exercises at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija province, northern Philippines, April 13, 2023. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

The Philippine forces will likely acquire Javelin missiles as part of the military’s modernization program, Brawner said.

The troops from both countries were drilling at Fort Magsaysay as part of the largest-ever Balikatan exercises.

These are bringing together nearly 18,000 troops – 12,000 Americans, 5,000 Filipinos and about 100 Australians. The drills are unfolding against the backdrop of frequent Chinese harassment of Philippine ships in contested waters of the South China Sea and tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan.

China has been ratcheting up its activities in the strategic waterway despite having agreed with its neighbors to refrain from taking actions that could cause friction in the potentially mineral rich sea region. Many countries, especially the United States, consider the South China Sea to be a vital sea corridor for global commerce.

Gen. Charles Flynn, the commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, said the joint drills were an “expression of us trying to commit to enabling and assisting the Philippine military in being able to protect their national sovereignty and protect territorial integrity.”

Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, talks to soldiers during the Balikatan joint exercises at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija province, northern Philippines, April 13, 2023. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Brawner said the Philippine Army was looking to acquire the Javelin, a weapon that can take out tanks and other armored vehicles, as the military branch moves toward territorial defense after fighting insurgencies at home for decades.

“Once we have this weapons system in our inventory, then we will be able to use them effectively against our enemies,” Brawner said. “We don’t have these kinds of weapons but, as I said, we are already starting to train on how to use these weapons because we are envisioning to have these weapons systems in our modernization program.”

Asked whether the training program was in preparation for a scenario where China could attack Taiwan and pull the Philippines into a conflict over that island, Brawner replied: “All the scenarios that we are doing here in the exercise are not specifically targeting any adversary. We are not saying it is against any country or any specific group of adversaries, but we want to prepare for all kinds of threats that would come to our country whether it be man-made or natural.”

Flynn, for his part, noted that the diplomatic and defense chiefs of both counties had met in Washington this week for so-called 2+2 bilateral talks. 

The Balikatan drills in the Philippines “is an extension of that, an operationalization of the commitment to one another and for a safe, stable, free and open Indo-Pacific that everyone gets to benefit from,” Flynn said.

“As you witnessed in August of last year and you are recently witnessing, there are some irresponsible behaviors that are ongoing and we should call those irresponsible behaviors out,” Flynn said.

The American commander did not elaborate, but in August 2022 China carried out military drills around Taiwan in response to a visit to the island by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. At the time, the defense ministry of Taiwan, which China considers as one of its provinces, called the three-day Chinese military exercises “highly provocative.”

The Balikatan exercises kicked off on Tuesday amid anti-U.S. protests by some Filipino activist groups who oppose the Marcos administration’s recent decision to grant the American armed forces access to four more Philippine military bases on a rotating basis under an expanded defense pact

The Philippines, a former American colony, was home to the two largest U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia during the Cold War and Vietnam War. 

The Balikatan exercises are “nothing but a blatant display of U.S. imperialism’s military intervention and aggression in the country and region,” said one local group, the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS).

“The presence of foreign troops in local communities poses a grave threat to safety, security and welfare of the people.”


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