Balikatan 2024: missiles, military aid, China tensions in focus as ‘biggest ever’ US-Philippines drills begin

Speaking at the opening ceremony on Monday, Philippine armed forces chief General Romeo Brawner Jnr said the drills represent “the essence of unity, collective responsibility and enduring partnership” between the Philippines and the US “and our partners”.

“It is not a partnership of convenience but rather a clear reflection of our shared history, unwavering commitment to democracy and respect for international law in our pursuit of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Although none of the speakers at the opening ceremony mentioned China, Beijing’s presence has loomed large in advance of this year’s exercises, given the numerous run-ins its naval forces have had with Philippine vessels in recent months, particularly around the highly contested Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

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Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Brawner made special mention of the fact that, for the first time, “a number of troops from the special action force of the Philippine National Police and six vessels from the Philippine Coast Guard”, were part of the Balikatan exercises. Navies from Australia and France are also taking part this year.
Some drills will take place on and around the island of Palawan, as well as within waters off the Philippine’s central and northern coasts closest to Taiwan. A schedule of the exercises has not been released for security purposes.

New missile systems

As part of the Balikatan drills, Filipino soldiers will familiarise themselves with US military hardware and test the Philippines’ newly-acquired assets and equipment.

Military Sealift Command, the US Navy’s replenishment and transport arm, said it had delivered 554 pieces of equipment and shipping containers for the exercises to Subic Free Port, northwest of Manila, and would conduct a separate bilateral exercise with the Philippine military. It gave not further details about the equipment.

Two sophisticated missile systems, the Spyder and Typhon, are set to be demonstrated for the first time in the Philippines as part of the drills.

The Spyder – a mobile, ground-based, air defence system – is currently in use by the Philippine Air Force’s 960th Air and Missile Defence Group.

Will China hold back during the US-Philippine Balikatan military drills?

Army Colonel Michael Logico, the Philippine military’s spokesman for this year’s Balikatan exercises, told reporters on March 5 that the drills would “test the interoperability between our weapon systems and that of the United States.”

For its part, the US military has brought its Typhon systems, designed to launch Standard SM-6 and Tomahawk missiles, to be deployed at Laoag International Airport in Ilocos Norte, the home province of President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr.
The Philippines on Friday received the first of three batteries BrahMos cruise missile batteries from India. The medium-range supersonic cruise missile, produced by Indian-Russian multinational aerospace and defence corporation BrahMos Aerospace, can be launched from submarines, ships or fighter aircraft.
An Indian soldier salutes from a Brahmos weapons system during a Republic Day parade in New Delhi in 2021. Photo: AFP
The 18.9 billion-peso (US$328.3 million) deal for the missiles was signed during the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos’ predecessor as Philippine president.

Renato de Castro, an international-relations professor at De La Salle University in Manila, described the purchase as part of the Philippine military’s shift from internal security to external defence.

The BrahMos missiles would serve as a “backup through coastal defence”, he explained in an interview on state broadcaster PTV, while the military was still developing its naval capabilities to guard the country’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone and the air force was honing its aerial-denial capabilities.

De Castro added that since “we don’t have the resources, the technical know-how and training” to conduct external defence, the country’s armed forces were using the Balikatan exercises to gain these skills. There has been no announcement on whether BrahMos missiles will be used during the joint drills.

US$2.5 billion in military aid?

To assist the rapid switch from internal to external defence, the Philippine military is now drawing up a lengthy wish list, with two American senators from rival parties signalling their intention to help make these wishes come true.

Republican Bill Hagerty and Democrat Tim Kaine, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, jointly filed a bill to the US Congress on April 11 “to modernise the defence capabilities of the Philippines and for other purposes.”

The Philippines Enhanced Resilience Act of 2024 aims to authorise grant assistance of US$500 million per year for five years starting from 2025 under the US Foreign Military Financing programme, for a total of US$2.5 billion.

Under the proposed measure, all purchases would be made exclusively from American companies. The goal is to enhance the Philippines’ defence capabilities across a range of areas, including coastal and air defence, maritime security, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cybersecurity.

US and Filipino officials pose for a photo on Monday during the opening ceremony of the annual Balikatan exercises in Quezon City. Photo: Reuters

It’s unclear at this point when, or if, the US Congress might pass the bill.

Surveys indicate that most Filipinos approve of closer military cooperation with the US, but a statement criticising the drills was issued on Monday by Bayan Muna (Country First), a member of the left-wing Makabayan political coalition.

“The warmongering thrust of the biggest Balikatan ever is mainly for the advancement of US geopolitical interest in the Asia-Pacific region,” said the statement attributed to party executive vice-president Carlos Zarate.

“[It is] a pretext for training the Philippine forces as US pawns in its proxy war with China.”

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