The US and the Philippines are planning to return to full-scale military drills in 2022 after two years and will invite Australia and the UK as observers, in another sign of the Biden administration’s push to deepen ties in the Indo-Pacific and counter China’s assertiveness.
America wants “to increase the complexity and scope” of its military exercises with the Philippines, and plans to invite new partners to join the drills, Admiral John Aquilino, the US Indo-Pacific Command chief, said at a briefing in Manila.
The UK, Australia and Japan are among the “like-minded” countries that could rejoin the drills as observers, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Jose Faustino said at the same briefing.
The ramp-up in military engagement comes after the US, UK and Australia unveiled a security partnership last month that allows Canberra to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology.
While some nations in Southeast Asia were concerned that the pact would drive a regional arms race, the Philippines was broadly supportive of the move but said that Manila wanted good defense relations with all countries in the Indo-Pacific.
Earlier in his term, President Duterte wanted to end military exercises with the US, as he sought to build ties with China. The drills were canceled in 2020 and scaled down this year due to the pandemic.
In recent months, however, the Philippines has been moving back towards its long-time alliance with the US, amid tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea.
Aquilino also repeated America’s commitment that it will stand with the Philippines against threats. The US has also allocated $12.5 million to implement a deal that allows American projects in Philippine military bases, he said.
Meanwhile, four ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
The UAS, worth P20 million, were transferred to PAF on Wednesday at Clark Air Base in Pampanga during a ceremony joined and witnessed by Filipino and American officials.
US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Heather Variava joined US Admiral John Aquilino and representatives from the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) during the ceremony with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and PAF chief Lt. Gen. Allen Paredes.
The embassy said the platforms would provide additional capabilities in unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and in support of counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts.
It will also support the AFP’s domain awareness and border security capabilities.
“We remain committed to our promises on helping modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and we hope this will further strengthen our combined capabilities in working together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Variava said.
The embassy said that since 2015, the US has already delivered more that P50.6 billion worth of ships, planes, armored vehicles, small arms and other equipment to the Philippine military.
“With additional four long-endurance, low-altitude ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, our aerial reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities will be enhanced. With five more Black Hawks, the Philippine Air Force can now better provide prompt and sustained day and night tactical heli-lift and combat and non-combat search and rescue operations,” Lorenzana said.
While at Clark, Lorenzana also lead the acceptance and blessing of five Blackhawk helicopters and the decommissioning of 10 UH-1D helicopters.
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Maynard Mariano said the UH-1Ds have already “served” their purpose.
The unit is also already equipped with newer assets like the Bell 412 and Blackhawk helicopters, aside from planning to acquire medium and heavy lift helicopters.
Meanwhile, the military said it learned that a helicopter being flown by the Australian military crashed in Luzon although its three crewmen survived.
“The AFP was informed of the unfortunate crash involving an Australian MH60R Seahawk Helicopter Wednesday night while transiting East of Luzon. The aircraft is operating from HMAS Brisbane, which was reportedly on regional presence deployment with HMAS Warramunga,” said military spokesman Col. Ramon Zagala.
“The AFP is still coordinating with its Australian counterparts on the matter and has expressed readiness to provide assistance,” Zagala added.