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Balikatan Exercises: X-factor in the Phil countryside and military development (Part 1 of 2)

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More than eight (8) years and five (5) months ago (on January 21, 2003, to be exact), this widely read newspaper published my write-up entitled Balikatan Enterprise: 2003’s Initial Boon for the Nation, the third article I had written voluntarily about the then controversial – and still is, to some extent – Balikatan Exercises. I described them holistically then as an enterprise –  a bold, difficult and risky undertaking.

In that article, I argued that Balikatan was a blessing for our people, because it brought about the following benefits: (1) Timely impetus for the modernization process of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP); (2) construction of vital infrastructure in depressed areas; (3) delivery of health services and relief goods to needy communities, especially those that were affected by the war against terrorism; (4) increased economic activity in the areas where the American Balikatan forces stayed for the duration of their mission; and (5) enhanced confidence in the US as a trusty, dependable ally.

Now, after having read about the accomplishments of the Balikatan Exercises from 2001 to 2010, I am convinced that they really are an x-factor – a largely unrecognized but valuable element that has positive, far-reaching and immeasurable consequences – in Philippine countryside and military development. An edited review of “Balikatan: Shouldering the Load

Together” (October 23, 2007, GlobalSecurity.org) and other pertinent sources amply support my conviction.

Balikatan is an essential part of the Exercise Team Challenge series, an umbrella exercise that has been designed to improve combat readiness and interoperability by tying together joint or  combined exercises between the United States and Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and other interested countries.

Balikatan 2001 (April 26-May 10, 2001) incorporated certain Team Challenge scenarios, such as training in peacekeeping as well as humanitarian and civic-assistance projects. It was conducted to improve combat readiness against an external attack on our country as provided in the 1952 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

It brought together RP and US military personnel from all branches of service who worked in the heat and the rain, cross-trained in military operations like air rescue, amphibious operations, close air support, small arms training, and staging support. They also built and renovated schools and provided much needed medical, dental and veterinary services to the barangays near the Clark International Airport.

Balikatan 2001 specifically served as the baseline concept and benchmark for future Balikatan exercises. It was conducted within the constraint of the available resources of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the United States Armed Forces (USAF), but consistent with the provisions, intent and spirit of the MDT and the Visiting Forces Agreement

(VFA). It was limited to the islands of Luzon and Palawan.

Balikatan 2002 (April 22-May 6, 2002) had two (2) phases: Phase I involved a combined Joint Task Force Headquarters Staff and augmentation personnel who trained on crisis action planning and execution of the chosen course of action at the operational level. Its focus was on peace enforcement operations. Phase II included cross-training, field training, and humanitarian

civil assistance projects geared towards enhancing the interoperability of AFP and USAF elements.

The humanitarian and civic assistance projects were in the form of medical, dental, veterinary clinics and engineering projects designed to improve the local infrastructure. The exercise was held on the island of Luzon.

Balikatan 2003 (April 17-May 1, 2003) officially started when a variety of standard military cargo were offloaded at Subic Bay. It was designed to better train RP and US (more than 450 American soldiers were involved) air, ground and naval forces to handle any contingencies, emergencies or disasters which may arise throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

It was also conducted in two (2) simultaneous phases: (1) a combined command post exercise on crisis planning and execution on an operational level with focus on peace enforcement operations; and (2) cross-training, field training, and humanitarian civil assistance projects designed to enhance interoperability between RP and US forces.

Balikatan 2004 (February 23-March 9, 2004) posed a command and control challenge for the US Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and the RP contingent involved, because it was not held in one central location; it was spread throughout the Philippine archipelago. The Command Task Force (CTF) staff operated out of two (2) locations that were approximately 400 miles apart: (1) The CTF Headquarters was at the AFP’s Western Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where civil-military operations and the Staff/Seminar/Command Post Exercise were conducted; and (2) the CTF Forward was located in Central Luzon where amphibious training, live fire training and air operations were held.

The AFP-USAF Civil-Military Operations Task Force conducted twelve (12) civic action projects and provided more than 24,000 residents with medical, dental and veterinary care. Engineering Civic Action projects were also undertaken, such as the construction of a water well and water tank, refurbishment of the Puerto Princesa City Health Office, and construction of five (5) classrooms. Also, for the first time, civil-military operators were able to provide medical services to more than 2,100 residents of Basco, Batanes, which the USAF used as an aircraft refuelling location.

Balikatan 2005 (February 21-March 7, 2005) had as top priority the joint training of RP and US army, navy and air force servicemen in the implementation of humanitarian and civic assistance projects. It involved about 550 RP and 300 US personnel.

The Medical Civic Action projects included the distribution of medical supplies, seeing patients, and checking the health of animals in the typhoon-impacted areas of Quezon and Laguna provinces. The Engineering Civic Action projects included the construction of an economically vital 1.2-kilometer farm-to-market road connecting the barangays of Alim and San Buenaventura, and five (5) classrooms for the San Buenaventura National High School in Luisiana, Laguna. Much of the labor and funding for this construction were donated by the local government and citizen volunteers.

Balikatan 2006 (February 20-March 6, 2006) provided opportunities for training, humanitarian assistance projects, information-sharing, and other necessary activities that served the national security interests of the RP and the US.  It had three (3) phases: (1) Humanitarian and civic assistance on the island of Jolo in Sulu province; (2) a combined task force staff exercise in Cebu; and (3) cross-training and field training exercises in Luzon. About 2,800 RP and 5,500 US

military personnel took part in Balikatan 2006.

In Jolo, about 400 US military personnel worked with their RP counterparts and some local volunteers in eleven (11) engineering and medical civic action projects. They constructed new school buildings and provided medical, dental and veterinary services to the residents. A group of AFP engineers and airmen worked at the construction site of a three-room building of a high school. (To be continued)

By Ric Adjawie




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