By Priam Nepomuceno

(File photo)

MANILA – The United States has acquired a decommissioned fishing vessel that would be used for the live-fire at sea segment of this year’s “Balikatan” exercises.

“We are going to fire at a target and we have a target vessel that the US procured for this purpose so the HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system), artillery will not be firing just into the water, they will be firing at a target,” Col. Michael Logico, “Balikatan 2023” spokesperson, said in an interview with reporters Wednesday.

Logico said the decommissioned fishing vessel is about 200 feet long and would be towed into the water where it would be targeted by the US and Philippine weapon systems available for this year’s “Balikatan” exercise.

“We will tow it out into the water and we will hit it with all the weapons systems that we have, both ground, navy, and air, so that will be our target,” he said.

These waters will be close to the Naval Education, Training and Doctrine Command (NETDC) in San Antonio, Zambales.

“It’s closer to NETDC, it’s within territorial waters,” the military official added.

Logico said aside from the decommissioned fishing vessel, smaller targets would be targeted and fired by smaller artillery.

The “Balikatan 2023” spokesperson said these targets, especially the fishing vessel, are stripped and cleaned of all toxic materials as stipulated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources before being used for this activity.

“They will all be stripped, especially the (fishing) vessel that we will be hitting to make sure that when it sinks it will not pose as hazard to future navigation and will not endanger the ecosystem sub-surface,” said Logico, who is also director of the Joint and Combined Training Center of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

No provocation meant

Logico, meanwhile, said the “Balikatan” exercises are not meant to provoke anyone.

“This is also not a provocation, we are not provoking anybody by simply exercising, I can do anything I want within my territorial land, within my territorial waters, so this is not a provocation,” he added.

Logico also noted that these exercises are not aggressive as they are focused on defense.

“We are doing maritime defense, territorial defense, coastal defense. We are not extending beyond our territory and besides, if other countries or other critics might think in the wrong way, we would like to tell them that this is actually a form of deterrence and there is a difference between deterrence and provocation. A deterrence is when we are discouraging other parties from invading us. A provocation is when we are taunting other countries to invade us,” he said.

Logico also said the purpose of “Balikatan” is to upgrade the skills of Filipino soldiers.

About 17,600 Filipino and American troops would participate in this year’s “Balikatan” exercise, which is scheduled from April 11 to 28. The number includes 12,000 American troops while the remainder are Filipino troops.

About 111 members of the Australian Defense Force will be participating in events, like “special operations and smaller land-based exercises.”

Logico said these forces would be operating in “areas in Northern Luzon, Palawan, and Antique.”

Japan, South Korea, along with member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are expected to deploy observers to this year’s joint military exercise.

He said this year’s drills are “officially, the largest Balikatan exercise” ever.

Before this, the largest number of participants was recorded in 2015 when about 5,000 Filipino troops took part, along with 6,500 US soldiers.

In 2022, an estimated 3,800 AFP members and 5,100 American troops took part in that iteration of “Balikatan.”

In 2021, only 415 Filipino and 226 American military personnel participated in the annual exercise while in 2020, the “Balikatan” was canceled due to the pandemic. (PNA)