By Priam Nepomuceno

Balikatan 2024 executive agent Col. Michael Logico (PNA file photo by Priam F. Nepomuceno)

MANILA – Some 11,000 American military personnel and their support staff along with 5,000 troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will be taking part in this year’s “Balikatan” exercise slated from April 22 to May 8 this year.

“As of (today), the running total that we have as of the moment is 16,000 participants. That means 11,000 US personnel (compared) to 5,000 AFP personnel. It might seem like a disparity pero (but) the 11,000 includes (their) (exercise) support (personnel),” Balikatan 2024 executive agent Col. Michael Logico in a media briefing at AFP headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Wednesday.

These support personnel also include those from the US military’s “self-contained logistics” and also American civilian contractors and members of the US government’s also coming in to witness the Balikatan drills.

Logico said participating US troops are starting to come in and that there will be Balikatan-related activities starting next week.

These activities are so-called humanitarian civic assistance (HCA) related to engineering civic action (ENCAP) projects all over the country.

For this year, Logico said ENCAP projects are to be done in Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte; Punta Baja, Rizal Palawan; and San Fernando, La Union.

“(These are) the CMO (civil-military operations) components of the exercise and US military engineers are going to work hand in hand with AFP engineers in setting up school classrooms and health centers,” he added.

These will be funded 100 percent by the US.

On April 1, Logico said an “information warfare exercise” (IWX) will be held at AFP headquarters. IWX refers to the battlespace use and management of information technology “in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.”

And though it will be held much earlier, Logico said the IWX is still part of this year’s “Balikatan” as to “deconflict that space for other events in ‘Balikatan’.” Large contingent of foreign observers to participate.

As this developed, Logico said 14 countries, mostly from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will be sending observers to witness the Filipino and American troops go about this year’s Balikatan.

“Observers we have about 14 countries that are included in the IOP (International Observers Program) most of them from ASEAN but also countries from the region but not from ASEAN like Japan, India,” he said, adding that he will have more detailed list later.

A ‘group sail’ for Balikatan

Aside from the US military, the Australian Defense Force will be sending a 150 contingent while France will be sending a frigate to participate in the “group sail” phase of the Balikatan.

A group sail is defined as a maritime exercise and events that take place are a combination of division tactics, search and rescue, visit, board and search and seizure exercises, gunnery exercises, and flight deck operations.

Logico said the group sail will be taking place on the western side of Palawan and extending beyond the country’s 12 nautical mile limitation (also known as the territorial sea).

“Like I said, in previous exercises we have been limited to just 12 nautical miles, now we are encouraging or we are venturing outwards, beyond that,” he added. Other group sail participants include the Philippine Navy, US Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, the US Coast Guard, and the French Navy.

Logico said this naval exercise will take place much earlier.

He said around four Filipino ships are expected to participate while those from the foreign navies will be known in the coming weeks.

The Franch Navy, he said, was able to participate as this is already considered “International waters”.

“France’s presence is easily justified, as they are exercising FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) but they are incorporating themselves into the group sail and then it just so happened that they are performing comms (communications) exercises, division tactics exercises,” he added.

Logico said the group sail will proceed with or without the presence of Chinese ships in the area. And pending a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with France, the best thing to do and allow French naval participation is to conduct a group sail.

“If you don’t have (SOVFA) that the easiest thing that you can do is to conduct a group sail that is beyond territorial waters, for as long as they are not putting French boots on the ground, (that is permissible),” he added. (PNA)