Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr presided over a joint military exercise to sink a ship in the South China Sea, in the clearest signal of his determination to revive his country’s military alliance with the US and repel Chinese encroachment in the disputed waters.
The rare manoeuvre, and its supervision for the first time by a Philippine president, was the highest-profile event of the allies’ largest joint annual drills in more than 30 years. It comes as China’s coast guard has stepped up harassment of Philippine ships around territory controlled by Manila in the South China Sea in recent months.
The combined forces turned a barrage of fire on the vessel, a former second world war US corvette decommissioned by the Philippine navy two years ago, starting with Himars, the powerful mobile rocket launchers that have helped Ukraine counter Russian attacks. This salvo was followed by shore- and ship- based guns and helicopter attacks and missiles from F-16 and F-35 fighters, which finally sank the ship.
Marcos, who was elected almost a year ago and is scheduled to make his first state visit to Washington next week, mounted a Himars truck in a dramatic show of his personal endorsement of the exercise. He did not make a statement.
Throughout the Balikatan exercise, which ends on Friday, the US military has demonstrated its focus on countering China’s ambition to control the air and seas in the Indo-Pacific region.
The People’s Liberation Army is pursuing the capability — untested in battle — to target US ships, aircraft and bases in the region and impede Washington’s command and targeting capabilities. It intends to do so through a combination of intermediate- and long-range missiles, a rapidly growing air force, a navy that can field munitions farther into the Pacific and electronic warfare systems.
This strategy aims to deny the US military access to the area and prevent it from freely operating.
To foil this so-called anti-access, area denial strategy (A2AD), the US is remaking its forces in the region to be more mobile and less predictable, allowing them to operate within reach of the PLA’s weapons. The Marine Corps is restructuring to build relatively small units that can seize footholds on islands from where they would support naval forces with data and put enemy ships or aircraft at risk.
The 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, a pilot unit for this concept, is heavily involved in Balikatan. The regiment supported the ship-sinking exercise on Wednesday with high-altitude Reaper drones, and provided sensing and targeting data for the bombardment.
It provided similar support for another live-fire drill on Tuesday in which joint forces fired at drones with anti-aircraft guns and Stinger missiles from an Avenger launch truck and downed targets resembling cruise missiles over the sea with Patriot air defence batteries.
Last weekend, Marines and Army soldiers from the US and the Philippines were airlifted on to Batan, a remote island that overlooks the Bashi Channel, to practise securing the terrain against a potential invader. The channel is one of the two main routes for Chinese navy ships to transit open waters of the Pacific.
On Monday, a US Army landing craft brought a Himars system to the island, suggesting that forces could use the strategic location to target ships across that entire narrow strait. “What we do is we revert the A2AD equation,” said Col Timothy Brady, the regiment’s commanding officer.
That message will not be lost on China. On the same day that the Himars was unloaded on Batan, the Shandong, the PLA Navy’s newest aircraft in operation, sailed west into the Bashi Channel not far from the island after operating east of Taiwan and the northern Philippines for the past two weeks.