Balikatan: Lessons learned have real-time resonance in Philippines
BASA AIR BASE, Philippines — On paper, Balikatan might be called an exercise, but the Marine general leading the training prefers to think of it more as a mission rehearsal.
Real-life military interaction between the U.S. and Philippines generally involves relief efforts after natural disasters, such as the devastating super typhoon Haiyan of 2013. But the Philippine armed forces have been battling insurgencies in the country’s southern region for years, particularly in Mindanao, and lessons learned at the annual Balikatan exercise have real-time resonance for this nation’s troops.
As this year’s exercise kicked off, two Filipino marines were killed April 7 when they happened upon a group of armed men while on a patrol in a remote region of south Palawan. And the nations have found a greater common cause in the past several years as China ramps up claims and activities in the Spratly Islands near Palawan. China and the Philippines have both claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and coral features, and while the U.S. has not officially taken sides on their dispute it has been emphatic that the sea — where about $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits annually — should not be militarized.
In recent years, Balikatan has morphed into a kind of hothouse for testing out new operational concepts.
“We’re doing things with the Filipinos that we’ve never done before,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Simcock, who has been involved in eight Balikatan exercises. “We’re doing a lot of new things this year based on the evolving needs of the region.”
Previous drills — this is the 32nd year for the annual exercise — involved a large force converging on one point, but this year, those focused on so-called “distributed ops,” with small operations far-flung across the archipelago.
On Monday, for example, about 40 Marines piled into three Ospreys in Palawan for a trip to a desolate airstrip on the island of Panay, where they joined Philippine armed forces who had arrived earlier in an amphibious assault on mock insurgents.
“Our company is doing a lot,” said Capt. Dennis Dunbar, commander of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, under the hot breeze moving across the Panay airfield that was converted into a temporary refueling depot.
“Three of the platoons of the company are spread out all over the archipelago,” he said. “One platoon is doing bilateral training in Cebu. Another platoon is involved in a joint rapid reaction force. Those are all platoon-level operations, and we’ve been attempting to command and control from the company level.”
Capturing the airfield was the decisive phase for the joint-reaction force, because it provided “proof of concept whether and U.S. and Philippine forces can rapidly aggregate a combined task force to respond to a crisis at a moment’s notice,” Dunbar said. “We had a lot of elements in a lot of different places in the Philippines.”
Controlling all of that successfully at a higher level gave the Marines a chance to try out an “alternate platform” for command and control, Simcock said. For that, they pressed into service the Singapore-based USNS Millinocket, a fast-transport ship under the Military Sealift Command.
The vessel was designed for strategic lift — moving people and things around the region — not combat operations.
“It supports exercises, but it doesn’t support mission rehearsal,” said Simcock, speaking Tuesday from the Marines’ command-and-control center at Basa Air Base, about a four-hour drive northwest of Manila.
About 20 of his core command-control personnel set up aboard the Millinocket, however, and from there they controlled operations dispersed on multiple islands.
“Huge capability — something we’ve never done before,” he said. “From this two-week evolution, there are now things I know we can use the Millinocket for I didn’t know before.”
The goal of country-to-country training is to build a familiarity, so troops know how to work together is times of crisis.
An alliance between two nations is like a marriage, said Simcock.
“You have your good days and your bad days. As regions evolve, relationships evolve,” he said. ”I would submit to you that today the alliance between the United States and Philippines is stronger than it’s ever been.”
This year’s training ends Friday.