US and Philippine forces fire on mock enemy warship in South China Sea military exercise
United States and Philippine forces fired on a mock enemy warship in the South China Sea on Wednesday, the latest display of American firepower in Asia as tensions with China continue to rise.
The exercise, watched live by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, was part of the annual Balikatan drills, which are scheduled to run until April 28 and involve more than 17,600 military personnel – the largest such exercises ever conducted by the two longtime treaty allies.
US aircraft, including F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as HIMARS rocket systems and Cobra helicopters joined with Philippine FA-50 fighter jets, helicopters and artillery to fire on a decommissioned warship towed to a site within Philippine territorial waters off the island of Luzon, a Philippine military release said.
Luzon, the northernmost of the Philippines main islands, is only 280 miles (452 kilometers) from Taiwan, the self-ruled island over which the Chinese Communist Party claims sovereignty despite never having ruled it. Earlier this month, China’s state-run media labeled the drills as an “attempt to target China.”
US and Philippine military leaders said Wednesday’s exercise was designed to synchronize combat forces.
“This training increased the exercise’s realism and complexity, a key priority shared between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US military,” said Lt. Gen. William Jurney, the commander of US Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, said in a statement.
“Together we are strengthening our capabilities in full-spectrum military operations across all domains,” Jurney said.
The exercises come against a backdrop of warming relations between the two treaty allies following the election of Marcos Jr, who has sought to develop closer ties with Washington in the face of a more assertive China.
The US and the Philippines have maintained a mutual defense treaty since 1951, but under Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte the Philippines tilted toward China, downplaying longstanding territorial disputes with Beijing while seeking to attract investment.
The Balikatan exercises – Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder – follow the announcement the Philippines will grant increased access by US forces to bases in the archipelago under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement (EDCA).
The four bases joined five included earlier, including three on the main island of Luzon, close to Taiwan, and one on Balabac Island close to Chinese installations on the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, including several islands claimed by the Philippines, despite a 2016 international tribunal ruling refuting its supposed “historical rights” of the area.
Regional tensions in the South China Sea spiked in February, when the Philippines said a Chinese Coast Guard ship aimed a “military grade” laser at some of the crew of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, temporarily blinding them.
Besides Tuesday’s exercise, this year’s Balikatan drills have also featured weaponry battle-tested by Ukrainian troops defending against Russian forces, including handheld Javelin anti-tank missiles and HIMARS rocket systems.
Another key element has been the presence of US’ 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, a new concept for Marine Corps warfighting designed with a conflict against China in mind, analysts say.
The unit is designed to be highly mobile, conduct strike operations as well as air and missile defense and supporting naval surface warfare, according to Marine Corps releases.
The exercises have also included amphibious operations, maritime security, cyber defense and counterterrorism operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, according to a statement from the US Embassy in Manila.
Meanwhile, in another sign of increasing US-Philippine military cooperation, the US Pacific Air Forces said Tuesday a key air exercise will return to the Philippines next month for the first time since 1990.
Exercise Cope Thunder, to be held May 1 to 12, will feature US Air Force F-16 fighter jets deploying from Misawa Air Base in Japan and joining with Philippine Air Force units at Clark Air Base to “provide bilateral fighter training” and “improve combined interoperability,” a US Air Force statement said.
Cope Thunder began in the Philippines in 1976, but was moved to Alaska in the early 1990s as the US Air Force ended operations at Clark.