The Philippines and United States formally opened the largest Exercise Balikatan yet at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) General Headquarters.

With over 17,500 combined troops from the AFP and the U.S. military, the 38th iteration of the annual bilateral exercise will highlight four major events: Command Post Exercise, Cyber Defense Exercise, Field Training Exercise, and Humanitarian Civic Assistance.

Present in the Opening Ceremony were the Honorable Heather Variava, U.S. Chargé d’affaires, representing the Hon. MaryKay Loss Carlson, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines; General Andres Centino, PA, AFP Chief of Staff; Major General Eric Austin, USMC, U.S. Exercise Director Representative; and Major General Marvin N Licudine, PA, PH Exercise Director.

“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.

On the 38th iteration of Exercise Balikatan, the participating forces will enhance their joint and combined capabilities in maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire exercise, urban operations, aviation operations, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

“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. “The United States and the Philippines share a vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, prosperous, secure and resilient. Each of us standing shoulder to shoulder, Balikatan, help make this vision a reality.”

Exercise Balikatan signifies a more robust security relationship between longtime allies, including Australia, who will also participate this year. Officials from Japan are expected to observe.

“Philippine and U.S. forces are coming together in large numbers. Approximately 17,600 participants in total demonstrating our commitment to each other and to our mutual defense treaty,” said Austin. “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.”

“It builds interoperability, enhances capabilities, and demonstrates mutual defense of the Philippine sovereign territory,” Licudine said.

There was widespread agreement among the speakers that Exercise Balikatan remains one of the best training opportunities aimed at improving both countries’ military capabilities.