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Shared Vision

Philippine Army Chief: Security Dynamics Drive Multilateral Training in the Indo-Pacific


Deterring war is the main reason to prepare for war, Gen. Romeo Brawner, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff, told FORUM on the sidelines of the May 2023 Land Forces Pacific (LANPAC) Symposium & Exposition in Hawaii. Multilateral training and exercises are gaining headway with widespread acceptance among like-minded militaries throughout the Indo-Pacific, Brawner said during his keynote conference presentation. “Great powers are providing the impetus for these events to become institutionalized in the region,” he added.

Such multilateral events expose militaries to operational and organizational concepts, and sophisticated weapons systems, Brawner said. They accelerate the learning curve for priority capabilities. Militaries can train in myriad environments and in realistic scenarios with simulated adversaries. Multilateral training also promotes interoperability and strengthens ties among partners to prepare for future undertakings, he said.

“More importantly, [multinational exercises] allow an army to punch above its weight through strategic messaging,” he continued. “Multilateral trainings paint a picture of shared vision and unity of purpose among participating states to produce an integrated deterrent effect.” The Philippine Army considers itself a small force on the world stage, Brawner told FORUM, so training with allies such as the United States amplifies “a collective voice that allows us to send a message to the world.”

“By training together, we are building each of our own capabilities and really building on that interoperability so that, if the need arises, we would be able to work together,” he said. “The objective is to deter war. Making sure that the world knows that we are working together, we could keep that lethal punch unnecessary.”

Common Spaces

The AFP has expanded multilateral engagements against a backdrop of increasing tensions across the Indo-Pacific. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea in defiance of a 2016 international tribunal ruling that invalidated the territorial assertion. Beijing aggressively attempts to deny coastal states access to resources and routinely harasses Philippine vessels in the nation’s exclusive economic zone.

A region’s significance in global affairs, along with its security dynamics, drive the nature and scope of multilateral training, Brawner said. “There is no doubt that the last decade saw the growing centrality of the Indo-Pacific in world affairs,” he said. The Indo-Pacific is home to the world’s three largest economies — the U.S., the PRC and Japan, respectively — and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Linking the Indian and Pacific oceans, the region is a vital conduit for international trade, including oil and natural gas. An estimated 60% of global shipping passes through the Indo-Pacific, which holds lucrative fisheries and offshore oil and gas reserves (See Vital Chokepoints, pages 32-33). “Hence, nations in the region are vying for access to the vast resources in the region, making it an arena for global competition — or cooperation,” Brawner told an audience at LANPAC. “That is why we hedge by earnestly preparing for roles that the Army is expected to perform in different contingencies. This is the part where multilateral training should be of great help.”

More than half of the world’s 25 most powerful militaries and defense forces operate in the region, according to a 2023 ranking from Global Firepower, which tracks defense spending. Challenges that arise from the presence of such powerhouses also present opportunities for collaboration toward supporting regional stability. “Indeed, some synergies could be generated by working together with like-minded armies in the company of giants,” Brawner said.

He said shared circumstances, duties and values further drive the importance of multilateral training.

Regional security environments contain territorial disputes that give rise to anti-access/area denial tactics that are contrary to the rule of law. Training together allows countries to coordinate responses, share best practices, enhance capabilities and develop shared approaches to security challenges.

Common threats, both human-caused and natural, require training to bolster intelligence sharing, enhance interoperability and develop joint strategies.

Roles among regional armies include traditional and nontraditional responsibilities to protect people and territories.

Collective visions such as a Free and Open Indo-Pacific emphasize the value of international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful dispute resolution, and economic development.

Such factors “create an urgency for like-minded countries,” whose militaries must unite in training while there is time to deter or delay threats, Brawner said.

“The relationship we are building together is a real value,” he told FORUM. “More than just the capability development, more than just the interoperability, we need the relationships that mean so much when we come together to deal with threats.”

Building Partnerships 

International engagements are mutually beneficial as forces enhance capabilities, complement operational support and identify gaps while developing skills. As a relatively new participant in multilateral training, the Philippine military is still expanding engagements with other nations, Brawner said. However, defense and security partnerships have already reaped benefits for the nation, including materiel solutions, capacity building, threat reduction programs, maritime security projects, and training and education.

Exercise Balikatan 2023, the largest iteration of the annual military training ever hosted by the AFP and the U.S. military, brought together more than 17,000 troops to enhance multidomain capabilities in amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban warfare, air defense, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness. Personnel from Brunei, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam attended as observers.

Building off Balikatan, about 3,000 Philippine and U.S. Soldiers took part in Exercise Salaknib in 2023, which the two allies are transforming into a multilateral event, Brawner said. Japan joined as an observer to the scaled-up Salaknib, which means “shield” in the Philippines’ Ilocano language and aims to enhance defense readiness.

Another multilateral engagement, at the U.S. Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC), offered Philippine personnel an opportunity to train with units from Indonesia and Thailand and a U.S. joint force in late 2022. More than 6,000 personnel participated. Observer nations included Australia, Bangladesh, France, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. The combat training center in Hawaii, which also has a campus in Alaska and an exportable training capability for use elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, provides realistic scenarios that replicate peer and near-peer combat that could take place in the theater.

Brawner also cited Exercise Carabaroo, hosted by the Australian Army, which offers Philippine and U.S. personnel opportunities to enhance combined arms capabilities in a complex environment. Objectives include warfighting interoperability, strengthening international relationships and improving combat readiness. Carabaroo is part of exercises Predator’s Run and Southern Tiger, and Exchange Program Kartikaburra, which also involve troops from Indonesia and Malaysia, the Manila Bulletin newspaper reported.

The Philippine Army has been an observer in Exercise Yama Sakura with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and U.S. forces. Brawner said his nation hopes to become a full participant. Yama Sakura, a component of the U.S. Army Pacific’s Operation Pathways, focuses on developing joint force lethality among multinational armies.

Brawner recommended streamlining protocols to accommodate more like-minded partners in multilateral training: “We should be quick to embrace armies that share our collective ideals consistent with a rules-based international order.” He advocated for burden-sharing mechanisms to allow for sustainable participation by smaller states and urged fellow leaders to acknowledge disparities in advancement among Indo-Pacific militaries and recognize the value in complementary efforts that augment full interoperability.

A Philippine Army Soldier launches a Javelin anti-tank missile during Exercise Balikatan in April 2023 at Fort Magsaysay, Philippines. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

History Lesson 

Brawner and U.S. Army Pacific Commanding Gen. Charles Flynn visited the Philippines’ Corregidor Island in mid-2023, touring sites commemorating the shared sacrifices of Philippine and U.S. forces that defended the country eight decades ago during World War II. As they read a historical marker about facilities built in the early 1900s, Flynn made an observation that resonated with Brawner: “He said that as early as 1905, we — both our forces — were already preparing for something that was to come in the future. And this something came four decades later.

“Gen. Flynn said to me, ‘Romeo, we might be repeating history here because today we are once again working together, training together, preparing for something that could happen in the future. And that something could happen maybe earlier than four decades.’”

As Brawner told his audience at LANPAC, “We have to prepare for war as early as now. And one way of preparing for war — or one way of deterring war — is by training together.”  

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