• Panatag Shoal is infamous for a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China
  • The U.S. Army will use the Patriot for life-fire training for the first time in Balikatan
  • Australian and Japanese troops are also joining the exercise as observers

Philippine and U.S. troops will sink a target vessel near Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea for the first time in the history of the joint military exercise, Balikatan.

The first ever Balikatan ship-sinking exercise will be held at a site about 12 nautical miles off Zambales or about 100 nautical miles from Panatag Shoal, Balikatan spokesperson Col. Michael Logico told the Inquirer on Tuesday. The Balikatan will run from April 11 to 28.

"We will be sinking a target vessel using a combination of artillery naval gunfire and aviation weapons... We will be firing HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), our artillery ... a combination of Philippine Air Force and US Air Force rockets and bombs, and our frigates," Logico explained.

In 2012, Panatag Shoal, which is also called Scarborough Shoal, became the site of a standoff between the Philippine Navy and China's maritime surveillance vessels after Filipino sailors allegedly found illegally-collected coral and giant clams in one of the eight Chinese boats anchored in a lagoon in the disputed shoal. The standoff lasted for a couple of days.

Panatag Shoal was also where an alleged "close distance maneuvering" by a Chinese Coast Guard ship took place earlier last year.

Also for the first time in the joint military exercise, the U.S. Army will hold its first Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target) missile air-defense exercise in the Philippines as part of the activities under coastal defense live-fire training.

The Patriot system was used in last year's Balikatan as part of a mobilization exercise, not for live-fire training, the outlet reported.

Logico said the drills for this year's Balikatan will focus on "maritime defense, coastal defense and maritime domain awareness."

Former vice commander of the Philippine Navy, Rommel Jude Ong, told the Inquirer that this year's trainings and drills appear to be "designed to test operational concepts to enhance strategic deterrence posture of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the West Philippine Sea."

The number of personnel joining next month's exercises has also nearly doubled from last year's participants.

Balikatan 2023 will see about 12,000 American soldiers joining the exercise, with around 100 personnel from the Australian Defense Force also taking part in some of the events for the first time, as per The Philippine Star.

In total, about 17,600 troops will be participating in the exercise. Several members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) will be joining as observers. Last year, there were nearly 9,000 soldiers from the Philippines and the U.S.

Details about the upcoming Balikatan Exercise came in the same week Filipino and American soldiers kicked off Salaknib 2023, an annual joint military exercise that was first conducted in 2016.

Last year, there were about 2,200 participants, but this year's Salaknib Exercise saw about 3,000 troops from both sides. As with Balikatan 2023, observers from the JGSDF are participating in the Salaknib drills as observers.

The first Balikatan Exercise was held back in 1991. It was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, while scaled-down trainings were held in 2021.

Representative image of U.S. army troops. Amber Clay/Pixabay