The annual Exercise Balikatan,or "Shoulder-to Shoulder,"has commenced in the Philippines.Besides the US Pacific Command,members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Australian Defence Force are participating in BK 16.*
The US is sending 55 aircraft and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System,or HIMARS,among other assets.*
Besides 6,000 troops,including elements of III Marine Expeditionay Force,the Americans are also contributing the USNS Millinocket (TEPF-3),a Military Sealift Command expeditionary fast transport ship,to strengthen interoperability and partner nation capabilities for the planning and execution of military operations,and advance regional security operations,according to MSC,which is commanded by a US Navy admiral,although most of its ships are crewed by civil service mariners or contract mariners.The Millinocket can carry US Army and US Marine Corps company-sized units with vehicles and tanks,as well as support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.Configured to offload at austere ports,it also has a flight deck for H-53 helicopters and can sail at 35+ knots.*
The Philippines is providing some new fighter aircraft in addition to 5,000 of its troops to BK 16;while Australia is sending 86 ADF personnel,including a 30-member Special Forces element from 2nd Commando Regiment,and an RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime control aircraft and crew with supporting maintenance personnel from 92 Wing.It is the third year of Australian participation in Exercise Balikatan.*
Wing Commander Bill Talbot,who is commanding the ADF Contingent,said the exercise provides ADF personnel with valuable opportunities such as providing support to the amphibious exercise and participating in the humanitarian assistance programme.Balikatan allows us to reaafirm our friendship with and support to the Philippines while maintaining good interoperability with US Forces assigned to US Pacific Command.Our participation reflects our close military working relationship with the Philippines,which has been reinforced in recent years with our support to disaster recovery efforts following Typhoon Haiyan.We also gifted 2 Australian heavy landing craft to the Philippines Navy last year.*
Given the number of aircraft in BK 16 and the presence of HIMARS,there is the sense that the drills are about territorial defence or the retaking of territory-hardly a surprise in light of the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.