By ALFRED GABOT
Special to Philippines Today USA
MANILA/CLARK FREEPORT (PhilAmPress/PHLTODAYUSA) — Some 10,000 Philippine and American troops have started their new joint military exercises amidst the growing tension with China over disputed claims on islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.
This year’s war drills are bigger considering taht Australian and Japan defense forces are also participating in the war drills even as several countries have sent their troops to observe the exercises.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter will fly to the Philippines to personally observe Filipino and US troops during the exercises on land and at sea called “Balikatan,” according to US “Balikatan” exercise director Lt. Gen. John Toolan.
This developed as Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio of the Supreme Court warned of a possible military confrontation in the South China Sea over the conflicting claims of the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei in the region.
Carter’s visit indicates the growing concern of the US on the disputes and on challenges to free navigational and air access in the region as earlier expressed by US President Barack Obama who has ordered the US Pacific Fleet to patrol the region.
The opening of the military drills came on the heels of the port calls of several war ships of the United States and Japan, although officials claimed that the visit was not related to the exercises.
Aside from Japanese observers, Australian defense forces are joining the war games for the third time, according to Armed Forces chief Gen. staff Gen. Hernando DCA Iriberri who welcome the foreign troops during the formal launching ceremonies.
Aside from US and Philippines military, this year’s “Balikatan” exercise will be made more fruitful and dynamic with the return of the Australian Defense Forces, who are joining the US and the AFP for the third time, Iriberri said.
“We welcome the participation for the first time of the members of the Japan Self Defense Forces as observers in this exercise. And we are much pleased to see the delegations in our ‘Balikatan’ 2016 international observers program from eight other countries – Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam,” the AFP chief stressed.
Iriberri said these multinational forces were invited to increase multilateral collaboration and provide a common platform for regional engagement on development of partner nation military capabilities.
Gen. Toolan explained Secretary Carter’s role in the military exercises. “The secretary is (going) to be here toward the end of the exercise and he’s (going), actually observe a couple of things, he’s very interested in, what I mentioned earlier about the high mobility rocket system and how that works and he’s also (going) spend some time out at sea with the US Navy ships that’s gonna be out there and so and I believe that really his main purpose here is to come and reaffirm that the relationship that we have with the Philippines is rock solid, and we’re side-by-side,” Gen. Toolan said.
The high mobility rocket system, also known as HIMARS, or the “M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System,” is a US light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard Army medium tactical vehicle truck frame. Two HIMARS units will participate in the “Balikatan” exercises.
Aside from HIMARS, the US has committed a number of air and land assets to this year’s Balikatan for the combined beachhead landing in Antique province and other joint maritime, air and land exercises in Palawan, Zambales, Pampanga and at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.
Each HIMARS platform is worth over US$5 million and can carry six rockets or one MGM-140 ATACMS missile on the US Army’s new family of medium tactical vehicles five-ton truck, and can launch the entire multiple launch rocket system family of munitions.
It is interchangeable with the MLRS M270A1, carrying half the rocket load. The launcher is C-130 transportable.
The US Marines participating in the Phl-US Balikatan 2016 joint military exercises test-fired one of their lethal weapons, the HIMARS, at the gunnery range in Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac at the periphery of the Clark Freeport, the former US base.
Capt. Celeste Frank Sayson, Balikatan spokesman for the Philippines, said US Marines from the 4th Marine Regiment delivered six rounds containing non-explosive rounds using two M142 High Artillery Rocket System.
“They fired six rounds yesterday using the HIMARS platform at a reduced range of 15 kilometers in preparation for the final exercises on April 14,” Sayson said.
The testing, part of the ongoing joint war games, was intended to find out possible interference during the conduct of live fire drills, which would be open to the media on April 14.
With a maximum range of 300 kilometers, HIMARS is considered among the newest mobile and land-based lethal weapons in the US Marines’ inventory which they used during their Afghanistan campaign against the Taliban.
“It used non-explosive material and is safe,” Sayson said, adding that this type of rounds will be used in the forthcoming live-fire exercises with the media around.
“Balikatan 2016” formally opened Monday, April 4, and will end on April 15.
Some 3, 773 Filipino soldiers and 4, 904 US troops take part in the two-week military maneuvers. The number of troopers from Australia, Japan and the other participating and observer countries have not been disclosed.
Justice Carpio aired his warning if the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) fails to discipline China from violating international maritime laws, particularly in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
This could lead to an arms race between the rival nations and their allies against the self-isolating China, Carpio told reporters.
“[If the] UNCLOS cannot settle the most important maritime dispute today then it’s useless. People will not go to avail themselves of the remedies under UNCLOS. They will just buy warships, warplanes and anti-ship missiles to defend their maritime zones,” Carpio said.
The UN international court at The Hague is expected to issue its verdict on the arbitration case filed by Manila against Beijing for the latter’s aggressive actions at some maritime territories in the West Philippine Sea that are well within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the country as prescribed by UNCLOS.
Beijing has been using force and coercion against claimants of the disputed sea, and even went on a reclamation binge converting reefs and atolls into artificial islands for apparently military purposes banking on its controversial “9-dash line” that effectively corrals in about 90 percent of the entire sea.