United States stealth fighters streaked across the sky and rockets blasted imaginary enemies in the northern Philippines as two weeks of combat drills involving 2,500 Philippine and US Marines engaging in mock amphibious assaults and other coastal tactics neared an end.
The live-fire exercises in a remote valley north of the capital, Manila, on Thursday were the highlight of joint combat readiness manoeuvres codenamed Kamandag – a Tagalog acronym for “Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea” – which ends on Friday, military officials said.
Held simultaneously with combat drills between US and Japanese forces on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, the Japanese exercises involved an additional 3,000 military personnel, US Marines Major General Jay Bargeron said.
Bargeron said the drills ensured that the US was “prepared to rapidly respond to crisis throughout the Indo-Pacific”.
The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force said the exercises, named Resolute Dragon 22, were “designed to strengthen response capabilities” and contribute to the “reinforcing of a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The US-Philippines drills were the first large-scale military exercise between Washington and Manila under newly elected Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was an outspoken critic of the US, had threatened to cut ties with Washington, and was against military exercises with US forces that he said could offend Beijing.
Tension with China
Showcased on Thursday were US HIMARS rocket launchers (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which have recently helped Ukraine gain momentum in its war with Russia, and US F-35B supersonic fighter jets.
Firing GPS-guided missiles, the HIMARS are capable of hitting targets up to 300km (186 miles) away, US Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Stahl said.
Highly mobile and rapidly launched, the HIMARS are hard for the enemy to spot and can quickly change position after firing to escape retaliatory air strikes, Stahl told The Associated Press news agency.
Stahl echoed remarks by Philippine military officials that the joint exercises were not directed against any particular country.
The combat drills, however, come at a time when Washington and China have engaged in heated rhetoric over the status of Taiwan and claims to islands and waters in the South China Sea.
US President Joe Biden has said US forces would defend Taiwan if Beijing tried to invade the self-ruled island, which China has promised to re-integrate with the mainland and has threatened to use force if necessary to achieve its goal.
Though China has laid claim to ownership over most of the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the busy waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in goods passes each year.
In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.