Philippines, U.S. forces kick off 3-week war games in S. China Sea

Philippine and U.S. soldiers on Wednesday began three weeks of joint amphibious landing exercises on the main island of Luzon designed to "synchronize" joint combat readiness, sharpen interoperability and respond quickly to any crisis that may arise in the region.

"It is critical that we maintain the readiness for any crisis or contingency that may arise," said Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps said in a speech at the opening of the Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercises here in Zambales Province.

Kennedy said the "crucial" military drills codenamed PHIBLEX 2014 are "designed to enhance the training of our forces while strengthening operability in defense, humanitarian assistance, disaster response and counterterrorism."

Some 2,300 marines and sailors from the two sides will take part in a series of air, ground and amphibious activities around Luzon, including parts of the islands that face the South China Sea where territorial disputes with China brew, through Oct. 11.

This year's drills involve such modern military equipment as MV-22 Osprey aircraft that can take off vertically, and the USS Boxer Wasp-class amphibious assault ship designed to land forces on hostile shores. There will also be live fire exercises.

Rear Admiral Jaime Bernardino, vice commander of the Philippine navy, stressed the need to establish a "synchronized and concerted efforts with our counterparts that would enhance further our capability to secure and protect our maritime nation."

"The multilateral exercises and agreements are essential in our preparations and operational readiness as a multi-capable force that will defend our country's sovereignty and integrity," Bernardino said.

Shortly after the opening ceremony at a Philippine Navy training camp here, the troops conducted boat exercises in an area of the South China Sea, some 124 nautical miles west of Luzon where the disputed Scarborough Shoal is located.

The ring-shaped coral reef with rocky outcrops, which China occupied last year, is located north of the disputed Spratly Islands.

The drills come as the territorial and maritime disputes between the Philippines and China over islands, shoals, atolls and cays in the South China Sea heats up following the occupation of Scarborough Shoal and China's presence around the Philippine-claimed Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys chain.