By Roy Mabasa and Francis Wakefield
Multinational forces from the Philippines, the United States, and Australia have started conducting humanitarian and civic assistance projects in various parts of the country as part of the staging of the annual ‘Balikatan’ 2019 exercise.
On March 12, the multinational forces from the three countries attended the ground-breaking ceremonies for the renovation of three elementary schools in Orani, Bataan; Pangil, Laguna; and San Juan, Batangas as well as a health clinic in Moncada, Tarlac.
Personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), United States Armed Forces, and Australian Defense Force (ADF), all under the ambit of the US alliance, are participating in the Engineering Civic Action Program.
Under the program, medical facilities and school buildings will be built at selected communities in the areas.
The beneficiaries of the classroom buildings are Don Eulogio Luistro Elementary School in Bulsa, San Juan, Batangas; Victor De Guia Elementary School in Balian, Pangil, Laguna; and Pag-Asa Elementary School in Orani, Bataan Province. The local government of Brgy. San Pedro, Moncada, Tarlac will receive a one-story medical clinic.
Medical teams have also been deployed offering free consultation, hygiene kits, feeding program, and veterinary care. The teams will also share information on family planning, health, environment protection, and disaster preparedness.
As scheduled, construction projects, health engagements, and community relations events will take place to improve local infrastructure, teach lifesaving medical skills, and strengthen ties between Philippine communities and Philippine, U.S. and Australian military forces.
All the events are in preparation for this year’s Exercise Balikatan. It will officially open on April 1 in a ceremony to be held at the AFP’s headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City and end on April 12. This is the 35th iteration of the annual military drill.
Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog, is an exercise between the Philippines and the United States, and also involves participation from Australia. It characterizes the spirit of the exercise and represents the partnership between the U.S. and the Philippines.
During the joint exercise, U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, and counterterrorism response. All events will take place in Luzon, Palawan, and Mindoro.
This will be the first time that the USS Wasp paired with the United States Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II aircraft will be incorporated in the Balikatan exercise. Together they represent an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Participating in Balikatan demonstrates their ability to forward deploy in support of an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occurs.
This year’s Balikatan will also bring together ASEAN members for an International Observers Program. The program aims to promote greater defense cooperation with ASEAN and other key allies and partners, show multinational coordination where the observers can mutually exchange meaningful ideas and best practices, and showcase the joint and combined air, sea, and ground operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and U.S. Armed Forces.
Balikatan 2019 also focuses on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges. Exercises like Balikatan strengthen international partnerships and the participating militaries’ abilities to rapidly respond to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific region.