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U.S. kicks off Balikatan exercise in Philippines

By Allen Cone
U.S. kicks off Balikatan exercise in Philippines
Sailors stand aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp as it arrives Saturday in Subic Bay for Balikatan 19. Photo by Mass Communication Spec. 1st Class Daniel Barker/U.S. Navy

April 1 (UPI) -- Balikatan 2019, an annual military exercise involving thousands of troops -- and, for the first time, the F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter -- began Monday in the Philippines.

The opening ceremony took place at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City with 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops, according to the U.S. Navy, and it will run through April 12.

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This is the 35th Balikatan, which is a Tagalog language phrase in the Philippines for "shoulder-to-shoulder."

On Saturday, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with embarked Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 4, led by the 4th Marine Regiment, arrived in Subic Bay. The USS Wasp is part of the 7th Fleet.

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Aboard the ship are F-35Bs, the short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the 5th generation fighter jet, in air support of Marines on the ground.

"We are excited to visit the Philippines for the first time since Wasp was forward deployed to 7th Fleet," Capt. Colby Howard, Wasp's commanding officer, said in the news release. "Balikatan is a great opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps team and our allies from the Republic of the Philippines to learn from one another, and further improve our ability operate together."

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Balikatan helps train troops to support an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur, according to the news release.

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Association of Southeast Asian Nations members will participate as part of the International Observers Program.

U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations and counterterrorism response on the islands of Luzon and Palawan, according to the Defense Department.

The focus this year is on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges.

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Australia has sent special forces, medical, engineering and chaplaincy personnel.

"The exercise allows us to build our relationship with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States Indo-Pacific Command," the Australian chief of joint operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said in a statement.

"Through this partnership, we aim to increase our ability to coordinate a multilateral response to a disaster or humanitarian crisis in a complex and ever-evolving regional security environment."

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