US troops put new Philippine military sites to test in Balikatan drill

US troops put new Philippine military sites to test in Balikatan drill

MANILA – New military sites designated under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines allowed forces during the bilateral Balikatan exercise to test their strategic effectiveness and to work on improvement projects there.

EDCA allows the U.S. to fund improvement and construction of infrastructure at existing Philippine military bases and other locations as well as to rotationally deploy U.S. troops. The agreement was signed in 2014 and established six sites originally. In 2023, it four more sites weee added to the list.

The mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Philippines established the EDCA sites in order to support combined training, exercises and interoperability between the two militaries.

“The Philippines retains sovereignty and control over EDCA sites,” U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Oscar Franquez, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Manila, told Defense News. “EDCA sites are not U.S. bases, and the U.S. does not maintain permanent forces or footprints in the Philippines.”

The U.S. government has funded over $100 million in improvement projects to advance the modernization of the Philippines Armed Forces.

Three out of the four new EDCA sites were used for major events within the Balikatan exercise series, which began in late April and wrapped up on May 9.

Those three sites are locations strategic to the Philippines’ territorial defense. One is located on Balabac Island, south of Palawan Island. The island borders the southeast portion of the South China Sea, where the Philippines continues to defend its territory from Chinese aggression at places like the Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines marines operate aboard a shipwrecked World War II-era tank landing ship, the Sierra Madre.

The other site is at La-Lo airport in north central Luzon, a commercial airport being used during Balikatan for operations to project air assault missions into the northern islands within close proximity to Taiwan.

“The use of new and existing enhanced defense cooperation agreement sites during Balikatan 24 enhanced combined training and interoperability between the U.S. and Armed Forces of the Philippines, allowing us to operate together more efficiently,” U.S. Marine Capt. Colin Kennard, a spokesperson for the Combined Joint Information Bureau at Balikatan, told Defense News.

At La-Lo, U.S. Air Force C-130s delivered vital assets like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).

CH-47F Chinooks and UH-60M Black Hawks could be seen regularly taking off and landing, conducting air assaults into the northern islands, such as Basco, where part of the U.S. Army’s 1st Multidomain Task Force was situated for operations.

La-Lo also hosted a medical command post during the exercise.

“Because of its proximity,” La-lo “allows us to more efficiently support training events that focus on coastal defense and maritime key terrain in the Batanes Islands,” Kennard said. Basco is part of that island chain.

The final new site used during Balikatan was the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Northern Luzon.

The fourth new EDCA site, Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela – located in the central western portion of Luzon — was not used during Balikatan.

Of the original six EDCA designated sites, Fort Magsaysay served as a central basing location for Balikatan as it has in the past, particularly hosting the exercise’s jungle training.

Training enhancements

Directly following Balikatan, during a second phase of the Salaknib exercise that kicked off in the weeks prior to Balikatan, the U.S. Army is bringing its Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center Exportable, or JPMRC X, to Fort Magsaysay, which marks the the first time the most extensive iteration of the exportable version of the major training center is deployed west of the international date line.

The deployment of the JPMRC X to the Philippines will “help enable, assist and allow the Philippine army to begin to establish their own training center in the vicinity of Fort Magsaysay,” Gen. Charles Flynn, U.S. Army Pacific Command commander, said during a May 8 media roundtable.

“We’re helping them create that capability,” he said, “Where they choose to put it and how to build it is their own decision, but they turned to us for the expertise that we have and the JPMRC is a really concrete example of assistance that we’re giving them in and around their EDCA sites.”

In Hawaii, the JPMRC is a combat training center rotation that validates an infantry brigade combat team and brings in multinational and joint partners in an immersive training environment to conduct fully instrumented, live, virtual, constructive support to achieve specific training objectives to validate the BCT. Each brigade spends about 12 months prior preparing and training with JPMRC being the culminating training exercise.

The Army’s 25th Infantry Division is bringing the instrumentation systems, an exercise control group and an opposition force to the Philippines to conduct the JPMRC training during the second phase of Salaknib and will team up with the Philippines’ 7th Infantry Division for the event, Brig. Gen. David Zinn, 25th ID deputy commanding general, told Defense News in an interview at Fort Magsaysay.

“We’re very excited about it,” Zinn said. “Number one, it’s a proof of principle that we can do this. Number two, it’s a demonstration of the value of this to our partners who I hope, in the future, that they run this capability internally to understand the value of a brigade level training exercise with a dedicated opposition force.”

The Army is also now engaged in improving range facilities at Fort Magsaysay, Flynn noted. “That helps the Philippine army because now they have an improved range, but also helps us because when we’re over there for Balikatan and Salaknib, we have better range facilities to be able to operate on,” Flynn said.

The Army will continue to help improve the EDCA sites over time, Flynn said. “I think what has become more focused is that the Philippine military is now focused on territorial defense operations and that shift from counterinsurgency is in support of our allies and in support of our treaty allies. That defense matters,” he added. “We help defend terrain, we help defend people and … we help them protect and defend their territorial integrity and national sovereignty.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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