FORT MAGSAYSAY – U.S. and Filipino forces on Thursday blasted vehicles with anti-tank missiles in combat-readiness drills in the Philippines that are part of a show of American firepower that has alarmed China.
The long-time treaty allies are holding their largest joint military exercises called Balikatan — Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder — in decades. They involve about 17,600 military personnel and will feature live-fire maneuvers, including a ship-sinking rocket attack and beach assaults to simulate retaking an island near the disputed South China Sea.
In a gunnery range at Fort Magsaysay, a northern Philippine training camp for Filipino special forces, American and Filipino troops fired Javelin guided missiles toward three target vehicles simulating a battle zone. The missiles streaked at a low altitude for more than half a kilometer (half a mile) toward their targets and exploded in a fireball that shook the ground.
"This is what it looks like when the U.S. and Philippine militaries come together, train together,” U.S. Army Pacific commander Gen. Charles Flynn said.
"What you’re witnessing here today is really operationalizing everything that our political leaders are talking about from integrated deterrence to campaigning to building an enduring advantage,” Flynn told journalists invited to witness the drills.
U.S. troops also displayed other weapons including sniper rifles with night-vision scopes that could hit targets more than a kilometer (half a mile) away with high precision, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, which are rocket and missile launchers that have been used by Ukrainian forces against Russia.
Philippine army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner said the Philippine military wants to acquire Javelins and HIMARS from the United States under a special foreign military sales arrangement that is part of efforts to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
It’s uncertain when the Philippines can secure such weapons while Ukraine presses the U.S. and other Western nations for more military assistance, he said.
"These weapon systems are relatively more affordable for us as we shift to external defense,” Brawner said.
Last month, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office last June, said the Philippine military’s focus is shifting from decades of battling communist and Muslim insurgents to external defense to ensure the protection of the country’s territory as disputes with China over the contested South China Sea persist.
Marcos also approved a wider U.S. military presence in the Philippines by allowing rotating batches of American forces to stay in four more Philippine military camps. That’s a sharp turnaround from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who feared that an American military footprint could antagonize Beijing.
Efforts under Marcos to boost the territorial defenses have dovetailed with the Biden administration’s bid to strengthen alliances to better counter China, including in a possible confrontation over Taiwan, a self-governed island democracy that Beijing claims as its own.
China has strongly opposed the expanded American military presence in the Philippines, which allows U.S. forces to establish military staging grounds and surveillance outposts in the northern Philippines across the sea from Taiwan and in western Philippine provinces facing the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.
On Wednesday, China warned that a deepening security alliance between Washington and Manila and their ongoing military drills in the Philippines should not harm its security and territorial interests or interfere in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said such military cooperation “should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”
Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.