PH, US militaries defy pandemic to kick off ‘largest’ Balikatan Exercise

Published March 28, 2022, 12:27 PM

by Martin Sadongdong

After being postponed and scaled down in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Balikatan” Exercise was formally launched by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States military at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Monday, March 28.

BALIKATAN OPENING — Gen. Andres Centino (second from left), Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, link arms with officials of the Philippines and United States militaries and embassy during the opening ceremony of Balikatan Exercise 2022 at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on March 28, 2022. With him are (L-R) Maj. Gen. Charlton Sean Garlan PN(M), PH Exercise Director; Hon. Heather Variava, US Charge d’Affaires to the Philippines; Department of National Defense Usec. Cardozo Luna; Maj. Gen Jay M. Bargeron, US Exercise Director; and Commodore Donn Anthony Miraflor, AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Education, Training and Doctrines. (Photo by Mark Balmores / MANILA BULLETIN)

Gen. Andres Centino, AFP Chief of Staff, led the opening ceremony of the 37th Balikatan Exercise, dubbed as the “largest attended” iteration of the Philippine-led annual drills, as he emphasized the importance of strengthening the interoperability between Filipino and American soldiers “in light of the volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous nature of the security setting” in the Indo-Pacific.

“The annual Philippines-United States Balikatan Exercise is one of the long-standing mutual engagements between our two countries that have paved the way for enhanced cooperation, collaboration and mutual commitment all aimed at promoting collective security,” Centino said.

“This year’s event is indeed remarkable as we are fortunate to enforce a full implementation of our exercise with approximately 8,900 participants and observers from various armed forces which is a remarkable development compared to the previous years’ conduct of this same exercise,” he added.

Around 3,800 AFP personnel and 5,100 US troops will participate in this year’s Balikatan Exercise which will be held across Luzon until April 8 under the supervision of the Northern Luzon Command (NOLCOM). They will train “shoulder-to-shoulder” in a wide array of engagements focusing on maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

To recall, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Balikatan Exercise in 2020. Meanwhile, it was scaled down in 2021 and only 640 Filipino and American troops participated in the drills.

“The easing up of protocols due to the improving development in our health situation has allowed us once again the opportunity to fully realize the objective of our exercise especially with the participation of our other foreign counterparts,” Centino noted.

BALIKATAN OPENING — MGen. Charlton Sean Gaerlan PN(M), PH Exercise Director, and Maj. Gen. Jay M. Bargeron, US Exercise Director, unfurl the official Balikatan Flag during the opening ceremony of the Philippines-United States Exercise Balikatan 37-2022 at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on March 28, 2022. (Photo by Mark Balmores / MANILA BULLETIN)

Aside from the pandemic, the AFP is also facing other forms of threat as China continues to assert its dominance in the region, and the United States has expressed its support to the Philippines in case there will be an escalation of hostilities especially since there are concerns from the security sector that the military invasion of Russia in Ukraine might embolden Beijing to follow suit.

However, Major Gen. Jay Bargeron, US exercise director and commanding general of the US military’s 3rd Marine Division, insisted that the joint drills they are conducting with the Philippines is not a show of their force to warn China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.

“No, not at all [a show of force]. Balikatan 2022 is a tremendous training opportunity and is aimed at improving our security, defensive capabilities, and our readiness to respond to any crisis anywhere. It is designed to enhance our interoperability, strengthen cooperation across the border, and contribute to peace and stability in the region,” Bargeron said.

Meanwhile, Centino stated that the conduct of the Balikatan Exercise signifies the continued strengthening of the alliance between the Philippines and the United States as President Duterte enters the final three months of his presidency.

“We are having elections this year and definitely there will be changes in the organization. We have different defense treaties with our counterparts from the United States. Even with the changes in the leadership, in the organization, the treaties are safe,” the AFP Chief said.

“Security is a shared responsibility. We cannot just defend ourselves. We have to have a defense cooperation with our allies so that with synergy, cooperation, and collaboration, we will have a stronger or more sustainable security environment. We cannot just plan or defend or train by ourselves. It is important that we continue to engage with our allies,” he added.

Aside from Centino and Bargeron, the ceremony was also attended by US Charge d’Affaires Heather Variava; Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna; Major General Charlton Sean Gaerlan, Philippines exercise director; Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., Philippine Army commanding general; and Lt. Gen. Ernesto Torres, NOLCOM commander.