US eyes more military exercises in Mindanao

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/02 July) —  TheUnited States is hoping to hold more maritime military training exercises in Mindanao as the first ever joint naval training between American and Filipino troops in the island began Monday.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas, Jr. expressed hopes for a repeat of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2012, noting that the exercise is a “living proof that US and Philippine alliance is relevant and strong.”

A Philippine Navy officer aboard Salvador Abcede, a fast patrol craft, watches USS Vandergrift on Sunday 1 July 2012 as it enters Sarangani Bay for the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2012 naval exercises starting Monday. (MindaNews photo by Bong S. Sarmiento)“For the first time in memory, CARAT takes place in Mindanao, and I hope that this is the first of many,” he said during the opening ceremony of CARAT 2012 here.

This is the 18thCARAT, an annual bilateral naval exercise series between the United States and Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor Leste. and Thailand.

Thomas said that at least 800 US Navy and Coast Guard personnel are taking part in the nine-day joint exercises in Manila and Mindanao, around 400 of them  in Mindanao.

The US Navy (USN) deployed two vessels for the exercises, the missile-guiding frigate USS Vandergrift and the rescue and salvage ship USNS Safeguard, while the US Coast Guard sent USCG Waesche.

USS Vandergrift and USCG Waesche arrived here Sunday afternoon for onshore training exercises that include live firing. USNS Safeguard, on the other hand, would be doing the rescue and salvage exercise at the Manila bay.

The naval exercises in Mindanao would be on the seas off Maitum and Maasim in Sarangani and in Balut Island, Sarangani town in Davao del Sur and would not be visible from the shores, Capt. Robert  Empedrad, CARAT 2012 exercise director, said on Sunday.

Lt. Gen Jorge B. Segovia, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Eastern Mindanao Command, formally announced the opening of CARAT 2012 at around 11:05 a.m. Monday.

He said the AFP is looking forward to a stronger military partnership and friendship with the US military, noting the holding of CARAT 2012 “will benefit both navies as well as the  communities.”

“With its goals to strengthen the bond between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in addressing maritime defense,  port security and resource protection, this exercise will not just benefit the participants but also the communities in the Mindanao sea,” Segovia said in his speech.

In a brief interview with reporters, Segovia said Mindanao was chosen as venue of the CARAT 2012 because of the presence of the Coast Watch Stations, (CWS) a modern intelligence gathering or monitoring system project supported by the US government.

“It’s an opportunity to test the efficiency of the Coast Watch Stations that lines this part of Mindanao,” he said.

Thomas, for his part, said Segovia “is one hundred percent accurate.”

The Coast Watch Stations are spread in the towns of Kiamba, Maitum and Glan in Sarangani; Kalamansig in Sultan Kudarat; Balut Island in Davao del Sur; and Cape San Agustin in Gov. Generoso, Davao Oriental.

The Coast Watch Station is part of the Coast Watch South, a defense project that is also supported by the Australian government.

Thomas said the joint naval exercises “will lead to greater cooperation” between the two countries.

“Military skills are perishable. We need to continue training and hone our skills and broaden our horizons. CARAT allows us to build on previous missions and observe lessons and increase our shared responsibility to strengthen our relationship,” he said.

This is the fifth time that CARAT is held in the country. Last year, it was held in Palawan, in 2010 it was in Subic Bay, in 2009 in Cebu City and in Palawan in 2008.

Participants to CARAT 2012 will also do community service such as medical and dental civic action and free concerts in this city and Glan in Sarangani. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)