Home' Defence Review Asia : DRA Nov-Dec 2016 Contents DefenceReviewAsia | NOV-DEC 2016 37
CHEN CHUANREN / THE PHILIPPINES
LAST OF PHIBLEX?
Chen Chuanren observes Exercise PHIBLEX 33, and what seems to be the last few US-Philippines joint military exercises.
30 seconds into the deployment of land
forces in the Combined Armed Live Firing
Exercise (CALFEX) on 10 October 2016,
a Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) V-300 APC
was bogged down in the unforgiving volcanic ash
terrain of Crow Valley while the bulk of United
States Marines (USMC) and PMC forge ahead
towards the objective. The 30 year old vehicle
was later rescued by an USMC Medium Tactical
Vehicle (MTV) Mk 36 recovery vehicle.
In the air, numerous planned Philippines Air
Force (PAF) platforms slated for close air support
dropped out from the activity due to the poor
availability of their flying assets.
These episodes demonstrate the close and
trusted relationship between the Americans and
soldiers from the host country, yet also highlight
numerous underlying problems with the readiness
of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
PHIBLEX AND INTEGRATION
The Philippines Beach Landing Exercise
(PHIBLEX) is now in its 33rd iteration, and is
an annual joint military undertaking between the
USMC and the AFP. It is geared to increase
interoperability between the two nations for both
conventional and unconventional contingencies.
About 1,400 USMC and 500 AFP personnel
participated in this year's war games held
between October 4 and October 11 2016.
The USMC deployed the Bonhomme Richard
Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), which embarked
the 31sT Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)
consisting of the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/4
(2nd Battalion 4th Marines) (Reinforced), Combat
Logistics Battalion (CLB) 31, and Marine Medium
Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 262 (Reinforced).
A major event is the amphibious landing
exercise on 7 October, where 13 USMC AAV-P7/
A1 launched from USS Germantown stormed
the beach at Naval Education Training Command.
About 130 PMC were on board the AAVs. The
exercise was closely observed by numerous AFP
leaders, as well as observers from the Japanese
Self Defence Force.
Throughout the exercise, there were joint
parachute and artillery drills as well as subject
matter exchanges. For example, the AFP were
introduced to the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and observed operations
of the M1161 and M1163 tactical vehicles.
The M1161 and M1163, better known as
the Internally Transportable Vehicle (ITV) Light
Strike Vehicle and Prime Mover respectively,
are the only vehicles certified to be carried by
an MV-22 Osprey. Able to tow a M327 120mm
mortar or cargo trailer, the prime mover is suited
to the terrain in the Philippines and especially
during humanitarian operations, said a USMC
The Boeing-Bell MV-22 Osprey has time and
again proved its worth in the Philippines since
its debut in 2013 for Typhoon Haiyan relief
operations. Deployed from the USS Bonhomme
Richard, its long range and speed has enabled
quick insertion of troops deep into the battlefield,
the PMC and USMC has also conducted airborne
operations from the Osprey.
" It was an evolutionary change, to be able to
have the reach, speed and altitude of an airplane"
said VMM-262 CO, Lt Col Matthew Baldwin.
The CALFLEX also saw the firing of Lockheed
Martin M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket
Systems (HIMARS), and joint firing of M777
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte dropped
a bombshell on September 28 announcing that
PHIBLEX 33 will be the last US-Philippine joint
exercise in his term, and that he will seek closer
cooperation with China and Russia.
The announcement not only will bruise over 60
years of military ties, but also send the capability
building efforts of the AFP back to the drawing
board. In sum, it will be a lose--lose situation for
The AFP and US military have committed
themselves to the shared missions of the
Philippine Marine Ready Force Concept.
"Building a military capacity requires one
to continually sustain the capacity-building
momentum, via not just national-level efforts
(such as arms purchases and force structure
organization) but also exposure to new concepts
and ideas in order to keep up with the rapid
changes in doctrine and technology as a result of
evolving strategic environment. So if the US stops
exercising in the Philippines, it'll be more of a loss
for the AFP than for the Americans themselves."
Said Dr Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the
Maritime Security Programme, S. Rajaratnam
School of International Studies.
There was a large Filipino Navy and Marine
contingent on board the US amphibious warships
observing amphibious and AAV operations. The
Philippines recently acquired eight Samsung
Techwin KAAV7A1 and launched them from a
Tarlac-class landing platform dock.
Any plans by Duderte's administration to begin
procuring Chinese or Russian equipment may
pose serious integration issues in the AFP.
"The AFP itself is reticent when it comes to
acquiring, operating and maintaining relatively
alien foreign military technologies," said Dr Koh.
He thinks Chinese or Russian supplies could
best be used for low integration operations like
counter-insurgency, "I'm afraid they will still have
to come from American, Israeli, or non-American
Western sources as the AFP's preferred choices."
Since the US withdrawal from Philippines
in 1991 the US has diversified to numerous
new partnerships in the region like the CARAT
exercises and Marine Rotational Force in Darwin.
However, the Philippines remains a crucial
training location for the USMC.
" The weather is hot and hostile here, and the
training area is so much bigger," said USMC Lance
Corporal Steven Ramirez. " It gives us a challenge."
The tropics and proximity of Luzon to the South
China Sea gives the US military realistic jungle
training and a permits a strategic show of force
and capability near the disputed Scarborough
Shoal. Dr Koh highlighted these 'proximate
conditions' can be achieved in Eastern Malaysia,
Indonesia and Thailand.
"While the loss of the Philippines training
ground for USMC, if it ever happens, would be a
regrettable loss to the Americans, by no means
will it seriously compromise the USMC's tropical
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