|U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY Ashton Carter greets President Benigno S. Aquino III as he is welcomed during a courtesy call at the President’s Hall in Malacañang Palace on April 14. Carter flew in to observe the Balikatan military exercises participated in by some 10,000 American and Filipino troopers with Australian and Japanese defense forces and observers from other countries. Carter was to observe high-powered weapons to be used by troopers in the West Philippine Sea amid tension with China. Among those who accompanied Mr. Carter were US Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia. (PhilAmPress)
By ALFRED GABOT
MANILA (via PhilAmPress/PhlTodayUSA) — President Benigno S. Aquino III on Thursday (April 14, Manila time) met with United States Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during a courtesy call in Malacañang Palace as US and Philippine forces hold their expanded military exercises in the wake of a growing tension in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea over China’s expansion in that region.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras joined President Aquino during his meeting with Carter.
The American defense chief, who arrived in the country on Wednesday (April 13) from India, was accompanied by US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg; Ambassador David Shear, US assistant secretary of defense; Eric Rosenbach, the defense secretary’s chief of staff; Brig. Gen. Eric Smith, senior military assistant to the defense secretary; and Peter Cook, Pentagon Press Secretary and chief spokesman for the Department of Defense.
Also present on the Philippines’ side were Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, Department of National Defense; Undersecretary Emmanuel Bautista of the Cabinet Cluster on Security, Justice and Peace; Gen. Hernando Iriberri, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines; and Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia, Jr.
During a joint press conference with Secretary Gazmin in Malacañang, Secretary Carter announced the conduct of joint patrols between US and Filipino forces in Philippine territories, especially in the South China Sea.
The joint patrols actually started in March and will now be conducted regularly involving the US Navy, the Philippine Navy, the US Air Force and the Philippine Air Force, among others, according to Carter.
Carter also said that some members of the US military participating in the ongoing month-long Balikatan exercises will be left behind in selected Philippine bases to improve interoperability of both forces and enhance the capability of Filipino forces, both in conflict readiness and disaster response, as well as during accidents.
It was gathered that 275 of the 5,000 American military officers and men participating in the Balikatan exercises and several war planes will be stationed in the Philippines supported by the US Pacific Fleet which earlier patrolled the South China Sea.
The war planes include five A-10C Thunderbolt ground attack planes and four other aircraft.
Carter told the press conference that China’s actions in South China Sea have been causing anxiety and raising regional tensions.
“Countries across the Asia-Pacific are voicing concern with China’s land reclamation, which stands out in size and scope, as well as its militarization in the South China Sea,” Carter said. “They’re voicing those concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora.”
The US defense chief said the joint US and Philippine naval patrols “contribute to the safety and security of the region’s waters.”
China claims most of the strategic and mineral-rich sea, and has built artificial islands also claimed by neighbors, including the Philippines to enforce its sovereignty, while rejecting international arbitration.
The US forces used for the first time the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System during live fire exercises as part of the “Balikatan” joint US-Philippine military exercise at Crow Valley in Tarlac, north of Clark Freeport, the former US air base.
The HIMARS unleashed six missiles at distant targets from a dry riverbed as US Marine Cobra attack helicopters and Philippine S211 jets buzzed over the Crow Valley training range.
The same HIMARS will be transported to Palawan and loaded to a US warship for testing also in the West Philippine Sea, it was learned..
The HIMARS range is 300 kilometres (186 miles), said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the US Marine Corps Pacific commander who is part of the Balikatan exercises, adding it could hit vessels far from the Philippine landmass.
Since the US and the Philippines are key military allies in the Pacific Region, a ranking American military official expressed willingness to share his country’s sophisticated weapons.
“You know the truth to the matter is that we are allies and so you know as allies we need to work together and i think that we’ll be more happy than happy to share,” US “Balikatan” exercise director Lt. Gen. John Toolan said.
However, he did not disclosed what weapons the US military is willing to share with its Filipino allies.
In Thursday’s live-fire exercise at Crow Valley, Capas, Tarlac, Philippine “Balikatan” exercise director Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez expressed his admiration of the US HIMARS weapons system.
HIMARS is short for the “M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System”.
It is a US light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard Army medium tactical vehicle truck frame.
Around six HIMARS practice rockets were fired during Thursday’s live-fire exercises which also demonstrated the American’s M-777 towed 155mm howitzers.
It is the second time HIMARS was fired in Crow Valley, with the first being on April 4 where six reduced-range practice rockets were fired.
“Well you have seen the capability of the HIMARS, we need this kind of capability you know so that we can raise the skills and the respect for your Armed Forces, not only for the Philippines but within our region,” Lopez said.
HIMARS can engage targets up to 300 kilometers and estimated to cost around USD5 million per platform.
“Now because we have seen it I know the military (authorities) would like to have a good look at it and maybe a better consideration coming up with one, we have seen the capability, highly mobile, lethal so I think that’s one of the capability that we want to have,” Lopez said. (PhilAmPress/PhlTodayUSA)