PH, US Marines resume war games, restore VFA amid pandemic

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 29) — Filipino and American troops resume their annual war games after it was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The annual military exercise "Kaagapay ng mga Mandirigma ng Dagat” (KAMANDAG 5-21) opened on Tuesday at the Philippine Marine headquarters in Taguig, with a scaled-down lineup of activities and number of participants due to COVID-19 protocols.

"(Last year), we weren't able to conduct this kind of bilateral exercise. And now, look at us, we are doing this in a very low-key manner (because of the pandemic)," Philippine Marine commandant Maj. Gen. Ariel Caculitan said, addressing a hall with nearly empty tables and a crowd of about 30 people during the KAMANDAG opening ceremony.

In April, the annual Balikatan exercises also proceeded after Duterte repeatedly delayed his decision to end the VFA, and subsequently restored it months later.

For more than three decades, US and Philippine Marines have been holding large-scale bilateral exercises, focusing on counterterrorism and disaster relief response, until these were scaled back in 2017 upon the orders of Duterte.

Only about a dozen US Marines are now in Manila for the on-ground engagements. Before the pandemic, the US sent hundreds of servicemen to the war games.

Capt. Benjamin Royder of the US Marine Corps pointed out that while only a handful of them will be physically present, the bulk of participating troops would join remotely for tactical training drills from the US bases in Japan, including the one in Okinawa. 

"The scope of the exercise remains large (and) significant, but it just looks different than it has in the past," Royder told journalists.

Japan, which has been joining the exercises in recent years as a third-party observer, also deployed 25 troops from the Japan Ground Self Defense Force this year to showcase their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities.

Except for an activity on coastal defense in Cagayan Valley—which involves operations on the use of shore-based, anti-ship missile and anti-air defense systems—all other training drills will be done virtually. This is a sharp contrast to the previous field training exercises in different parts of Luzon that involved thousands of troops and the use of live-fire artillery and heavy military equipment such as amphibious assault vehicles.

Despite the scale-down of activities and number of participants, canceling KAMANDAG for the second consecutive year is no longer an option for its organizers.

"We must be able to outmaneuver our enemies in the same way that we shall be able to maneuver this virus and still be able to continue to train because we have a big responsibility in terms of defense and security of our people and our nations," Caculitan said.