Military trainings to develop interoperability are crucial for the US, especially when it is about to drag an ally to start or join its war. Also, military exercises such as Balikatan plays a role in US sales of arms.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – By now it is an inescapable fact that a large US-led military exercise is ongoing in the Philippines. For about two weeks until April 17, the country plays host to the 29th and largest US-led military exercises here. The US Embassy in Manila said the exercise will “enhance Philippine-US military interoperability and build military-to-military relations.” More than 8,000 Filipino and American military personnel are participating in drills being held in various locations throughout Luzon. US jet fighters are even slated to join the exercises, a rarity in previous joint military exercises in the country.
In the run-up to this exercise, US defense officials and US special forces troops had also flitted in and out of the country to discuss preparations with their Philippine counterparts. In fact, as US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas said during this Balikatan’s opening last April 5 at Camp Aguinaldo, members of US Armed Forces were here during typhoon Pablo four months ago. He boasted that that was why they were able to send aircraft to Mindanao within seven hours after the government requested aid in rescue operations.
“They want to be invited back,” Roland Simbulan, geopolitics expert and professor at University of the Philippines, said about Balikatan and US military basing here. He said that since the US announced its Asian pivot, it is concentrating in the region. Last year, an Asia Times correspondent estimated that the US would include “probably another base in the Philippines in the short term, inciting animosity between the Philippines and Vietnam and China.”
The US already has one unofficial military base in Southern Philippines, plus access to former bases in Clark, Pampanga; Subic, Zambales, and other ports and airports of the Philippines. It has an unofficial base in Australia, where it deployed 2,500 US troops, and reports said it has been increasing deployment or bases or ships in South Korea and Japan.
This latest Balikatan exercise, Simbulan told Bulatlat.com, is playing a role vis-a-vis the heightening tension in Korean peninsula. “The ongoing Balikatan military exercise serves as one of the US’ show of force,” amid regional tensions that critics said are largely fomented by the US, the latest is the trouble at the Korean Peninsula. The US reportedly committed one action after another prompting protests from North Korea, from putting in place a “kill chain” to using the UN Security Council against North Korea to distorting North Korea’s recent satellite launch to be reported in the West as a test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.
Balikatan 2013: A show for US’ shock and awe
Filipinos are traditionally not given a list of military hardware and equipment being used in the military exercise, nor the various interoperability issues they intend to work on as they build their “military-to-military relations.” The Balikatan military exercises, said the US Embassy, include humanitarian civic assistance, which so far have been duly reported with front page pictures in the news. Other activities of the military exercises itself, which include “senior leader engagements, a command post exercise, field training exercises, and maritime security and ship drills,” so far do not have detailed reports.
At least, the public is told that this largest Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) exercise employs an amphibious dock landing ship of the US 7th Fleet, the USS Tortuga (LSD 46), which arrived in Manila on April 2. The Tortuga, according to the statement of the U.S. Embassy, is part of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and is currently deployed to the US 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility.
While the military exercise is ongoing, another US warship, the US Navy’s first littoral combat ship, arrived for the first time in Manila (on April 8) and in Southeast Asia. Its port visit is for refueling and receiving supplies for the next period of its eight-month deployment. The combat ship’s port visit is unrelated to Balikatan, the US Embassy said. But it will take part in other US-led military show of force in the region, for example, in the International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference, and in select phases of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise series in Southeast Asia.
A show for whom
In the first place, why is there a need for US and Philippine forces to “enhance interoperability, and build military-to-military relations”?
From releases of US and Philippine governments, the simplest explanation appears that as allies or treaty partners, “interoperability” will make it easier, or seamless, for troops of the two nations to work or mesh together or cooperate in missions, gathering and sharing of intelligence, etc. This implies that the US and Philippine armed forces are expected to operate like one, even if the Philippines is supposedly a sovereign and independent state. This apparent subordination of Philippine troops and territory to US government’s armed forces is one of the things that irked Filipino progressive groups.
In a rally in front of Camp Aguinaldo hours before Balikatan’s formal opening on April 5, they reminded the public that these US troops now doing war exercises and other vaguely defined operations in the Philippines had in fact killed nearly a fifth of the Philippine population in early 1900s, when it engaged the nascent Philippine Republic in a war.
For over a century Filipinos have continued to fight and die for Philippine independence, succeeding in 1940s but still remaining under the US government and US military by various economic and military treaties (from parity rights to military basing rights). After decades of campaigning, Filipinos finally shut down the US military bases in 1990s. But now, especially after the 2011 declarations of US pivot to Asia, they are back for increased “routine” dockings, landings, refueling, rest and recreation and military exercises such as Balikatan. And the Philippine government led by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is rolling out the red carpet for them, reportedly inviting them even. For this, his government is being condemned as a “US puppet” by protesters.
With the US claiming treaties and partnerships with ‘allies,’ it then “relies more on its allies for its ground operations, during armed conflicts,” Simbulan said. These armed conflicts include the case of the two Koreas, and the case of the Government of the Philippines and communist revolutionary groups. The use of allies or surrogate armies to maintain its sway benefits the US in more ways than one. According to Simbulan, the US government, especially Obama, has been traumatized by high (American) casualties.
“American soldiers dying in wars around the world is politically costly for the US government,” Simbulan said. He explained that that is why the US now relies more on small-unit special forces operations, training of surrogate forces, and use of high-tech equipment such as drones.
Military trainings to develop interoperability are crucial for the US, especially when it is about to drag an ally to start or join its war. Also, military exercises such as Balikatan plays a role in US sales of arms, Simbulan told Bulatlat.com.
During Balikatan and other drills for interoperability, US troops demonstrate their equipment and Filipino soldiers, and the troops of other nations, which the US regards as its surrogate forces, get to try it out. Later, they can place orders for it. The US provides soft loans for that, Simbulan said.
In this way, the US extends beyond its number the global reach of its military even as it avoids piling American casualties. And on top of that, it gains by selling arms, ammunition and equipment.
For the US economy
Three days before the start of Balikatan, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario met with Secretary of State John Kerry during the former’s visit to Washington to discuss the two countries’ bilateral relations last April 2. In Kerry’s remarks before the meeting, he said they would discuss ways to strengthen trade relations between the two countries, and in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Two years ago, in a bid to enter the Tans-Pacific Partnership, the Philippines entered into an agreement with the US called the Partnership for Growth.
This partnership reportedly demonstrates the Philippine commitment to ‘economic reform’ to foster a more conducive investment environment. It has a joint steering committee composed of representatives from the US and Philippines, meeting every six months. It is essentially a mechanism to shape Philippine economic policies to conform to the interests and needs of the US economy. It is also a way for the Aquino government to source funds to create “a minimum, credible defense posture,” and therefor buy arms and war equipment.
Various local and regional reports show that Aquino has been pushing for a military ‘upgrading’ amid frantic arms-buying of its neighbors. All of which benefit the arms exporters like the U.S. A Reuters report said that “Though Southeast Asians don’t like to hear it, there is an arms race going on in the region.”
But all these arms shopping are not really geared for developing Philippine defense. Simbulan warned that “the US is actually discouraging the Philippines from developing its external defense capability,” and that the US and Jusmag are actually blocking it. “Even the kinds of weapons they are selling us are not for external defense but for counterinsurgency,” Simbulan said.
“In a way, military exercises are a big trade show where technics and weapons are demonstrated,” Simbulan said.
“If they (a country) buy weapons, it is in package deal, complete with military advisers and training in the use of the purchased weapons. They come in to train local units, armed forces, in how they can effectively use those weapons.
If that is so, then the US tradeshows or war games are paying off, based on US arms sales.
In the US at the beginning of Obama’s government, the US was supplying 20 percent of the developing world’s arms purchases. Before 2012 was over, this has jumped to 79 percent. The Obama Administration has increased the US industry’s arms sales to the Third World from a level of $9 billion per year during the 2004-2007 Bush years to $56 billion in the pre-election year of 2011.
Now that the Aquino government and the military had passed the Modernization Law, which also allows requests to exempt some contracts from public bidding, the country has also gained billions of funds for arms acquisition.