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US, PHL begin annual Balikatan military exercises

About 8,000 Philippine and American troops began annual military exercises on Monday with a focus on "mutual defense, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response."

The opening ceremony for the 34th iteration of the bilateral exercise dubbed Balikatan was held at the AFP Commissioned Officers Club in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

Approximately 5,000 soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will join their 3,000 American counterparts for the exercises.

The Australian Defense Force and Japan Self-Defense Force will also participate under the ambit of the US alliance system.

The Balikatan 2018 will focus on "mutual defense, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response (HADR), sharing tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to enhance readiness and response capabilities addressing real-world challenges particularly during HADR and counter-terrorism."

In a speech, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said the training "also will incorporate training identified in the post-Marawi action reports such as military operation in urban terrain."

He was referring to last year's five-month military operation in Marawi City after it was occupied by the pro-ISIS Maute terrorist group.

Northern Luzon Command Lieutenant General Emmanuel Salamat and Lieutenant General Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 3rd US Marine Expeditionary Forces, are both exercise directors for this year's Balikatan.

"By the end of Balikatan, we expect our respective troops — both from the AFP and US Armed Forces — to learn from each other not only from the training itself but also from hard-earned experience of both our forces," Salamat said in his speech.

The Balikatan would be divided into three distinct sections, including "individuals participating in a fictional scenarios which will improve the planner's ability to command and control forces from a headquarters level."

Operational events include activities such as the amphibious landing at the Naval Education Training Command in San Antonio, Zambales, the combined arms live fire exercise at Colonel Ernesto Rabina Air Base in Tarlac (Crow Valley), among others.

Civic activities, which focus on building schools as well as medical and dental education, and spiritual enhancement activities, have already started and will be further conducted in selected areas in Cagayan, Isabela, Tarlac and Cabanatuan City.

Salamat clarified that members of the media would be able to cover the Balikatan in a limited capacity as reporters will not be able to access the combined arms live fire exercise.

"We don't have official declaration that we do not want [the media] to cover the exercises... you can cover all the exercises, including the amphibious exercises, except those who are restricted area that requires security nature," he said in a press briefing.

Asked on how challenging this year's exercises will be as China has reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea, Nicholson said the "exercise was scheduled whether those missiles were [there] or not."

"And again this is a region of change, there are constant things developing within the region but the exercise has long been planned, probably two weeks from now we are talking about next year's Balikatan and you can imagine all the things that will occur in the theater between now and then," Nicholson said. —KBK, GMA News