US, Filipino forces thwart ‘beach attack’ by enemy force in annual military drills

Simulation drills in the northern Philippines took place amid Manila’s row with Beijing in the South China Sea.
Jason Gutierrez for BenarNews
2024.05.06
Laoag City, Philippines
US, Filipino forces thwart ‘beach attack’ by enemy force in annual military drills US troops leave a hill on a beach in Laoag city, northern Philippines, during a joint U.S.-Philippine Balikatan exercise, May 6, 2024.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

American and Filipino troops on Monday thwarted an attack of an imagined enemy force from waters in the northern Philippines across from Taiwan, as the two military allies staged live-fire drills against the backdrop of regional tensions with China.

Hundreds of U.S. and Philippine troops took positions on a beachhead in Laoag, in Ilocos Norte province, where they fired rockets, Javelin missiles and artillery shells from Howitzers into the sea. Powerful blasts from the day’s war game rocked this usually tranquil seaside city, which is famous for its sand dunes. 

“It started out with a military activity approaching the shores,” said U.S. Marines Lt. Gen. Michael Cederholm, commander of the joint task force overseeing the annual Balikatan (or shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise. 

“So you had 155-mm Howitzers shooting out about seven clicks (kilometers) into the water where the target is. It was highly successful.”

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US troops gather weapons and equipment as they prepare to leave a hill during the Balikatan exercise, May 6, 2024. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)

The “wave” of the enemy approach continued, forcing the defending troops to fire successively on fortified positions atop a hill on the beach that gave them a good vantage point. The American troops used their tactical utility vehicles to back up Humvees mounted with machine guns.

The troops overwhelmed the approaching enemy force, as loud booms echoed across Laoag, during the event that locals described as impressive and terrifying at the same time. 

“From my vantage point, it was very successful,” Cederholm told reporters, adding that the drills were done “through live virtual construct” – meaning there were U.S. military drones flying overhead to track the targets. 

“There were multiple command posts out there. And that’s part of the command and control integration that we did,” he said. “It was a huge success, the weapons work.”

Sovereign rights

The live-fire phase of the exercise will end Wednesday, when the allies are expected to sink a decommissioned Filipino navy ship at sea.

This year’s Balikatan will officially end on Friday this week. In the 2024 edition of the annual exercise, at least 11,000 American troops have joined about 5,000 Filipinos in the drills, and France, Australia, Japan, India and other countries have sent observers. 

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US and Philippine troops prepare to board a US Army CH-47 helicopter at the airport at the Philippines' northernmost town of Itbayat, Batanes province during the Balikatan exercise, May 6, 2024. (Aaron Favila/AP)

For the first time, part of this year’s drills were staged in waters outside the Philippines’ 12-mile territorial waters and farther out within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The annual military exercises come amid increased tensions between the Philippines and China in the disputed South China Sea and between China and the United States over Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.

“No military exercises should target a third party or jeopardize the interests of a third party, nor should they undermine mutual trust among regional countries and undermine peace and stability in the region,” Lin Jian, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson told a press conference on Monday, when asked about the Balikatan drills.

“I believe that the countries of the region see very clearly who is currently stoking military confrontation and tensions in the region,” he added. 

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Troops use a dune buggy to rush to the frontlines as part of Balikatan, May 6, 2024. (Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews)

Meanwhile, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Manila’s coast guard and military would not “follow” in China’s footsteps in using water cannons against vessels in the South China Sea to avoid stoking tensions over the territorial row. 

“What we are doing is defending our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” Marcos Jr. told reporters, using Manila’s name for South China Sea waters with the Philippines’ EEZ. “And we have no intention of attacking anyone with water cannons or any such offensive – I would have to call them ‘weapons’ – because it has been causing damage.”

Last April 30, the Chinese coast guard fired water cannons at two Philippine vessels near the contested Scarborough Shoal – a South China Sea shoal virtually occupied by China since 2012 – causing some damage, Filipino officials said. 

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US troops head out to defend a beach front in Laoag, northern Philippines, during a live-fire exercise, May 6, 2024. (Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews)

The incident was the latest confrontation between Manila and Beijing, which have overlapping territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam also have claims over the waterway.

Marcos engaged his U.S. and Japanese counterparts in a first-ever trilateral summit in Washington last month. Under his administration, the Philippines has allowed the United States greater access to Filipino bases, including in northern areas facing Taiwan.

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Balikatan participants fire a Howitzer cannon to defend a beach front in the northern city of Laoag, Philippines, May 6, 2024. (Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews)

Manila and Washington have been allies since 1951, when the two countries signed the Mutual Defense Treaty. The Philippines is America’s oldest treaty ally in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Both impressed and fearful 

For the locals in Ilocos Norte, the military drills were both exciting and terrifying.

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Participants guarding the beachfront during the Balikatan exercise involving US and Philippine troops watch as an explosion indicates that a target has been hit, May 6, 2022. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)

On the outskirts of Laoag, the Filipino marines erected a military park called Cape Bojeador, where old military articles were put on display, including a Northrop F-5A “freedom fighter” jet, an airplane that had been originally used by the Philippine air force’s fighting squadron.

The military drills in the city have ignited a sense of nationalism for many locals, but also fears that Manila may be roped into a war that is not its own.

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Philippine Marines carry equipment next to US Marines at Paredes Air Station at Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte province, May 6, 2024. (Aaron Favila/AP)

Richel Puyaoan, a local nurse, said she had to explain to her elderly mother – a child during World War II – that the Philippines is now a military and economic ally of Japan, the Southeast Asian country’s former occupier but which sent observers to Balikatan.

“For many, this is the first time that they are seeing that the Philippines can also defend itself,” Puyaoan, who was celebrating her partner’s birthday at the park with their 15-year-old daughter, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news outlet. “It is just somehow alarming for some people because they think we are suddenly at war.”

Jojo Riñoza, Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news outlet.

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