The Philippines and the United States formally opened the largest Exercise Balikatan on Tuesday at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) General Headquarters, with over 17,500 combined troops participating.

The 38th iteration of the annual bilateral exercise highlights four major events: Command Post Exercise, Cyber Defense Exercise, Field Training Exercise, and Humanitarian Civic Assistance, said the AFP in a statement.

Present were Heather Variava, US Chargé d’affaires; General Andres Centino, Chief of Staff, AFP; Major General Eric Austin, USMC; US exercise director representative; and Major General Marvin Licudine, the Philippine exercise director.

The participation of partner nation Australia in some events and the expected observation of some activities by officials from Japan in the Balikatan exercise highlights a strong security relationship between the longtime allies, the Philippine military said.

The involved forces will improve their collective abilities in several areas, including but not limited to maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire exercises, urban operations, aviation operations, counter-terrorism, and disaster response.

“For the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in particular, this year’s Balikatan Exercise is most timely, as we fast-track the enhancement of our capabilities for maritime security and domain awareness, as well as our employment concept of newly acquired equipment and weapon systems under our modernization program and application of newly developed doctrines–with the end-in-view of projecting a credible defense posture,” said General Centino.

“This year’s Balikatan will be the biggest ever, an indication of the growth of our alliance and how it continues to evolve to meet our shared goals,” said Variava.

“Balikatan is an important opportunity to train shoulder-to-shoulder and build trust and confidence that enable our forces to respond to crises and contingencies as a team,” Maj. Gen. Austin shared.

Meanwhile, Licudine emphasized the importance of the Balikatan to both forces. “It builds interoperability, enhances capabilities, and demonstrates mutual defense of the Philippine sovereign territory,” he said.

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