CAMP AGUINALDO, Quezon City --
U.S. Marines and Sailors from I Marine Expeditionary Force worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other regional allies during Exercise Balikatan 2023 for the first time since 2017. I MEF participated in a command post exercise, which included the first-ever cyber training between the two allies.
The bilateral CPX features participants from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which forms a temporary joint task force alongside the AFP. The two countries worked together in a parallel command structure to rehearse and refine command and control mechanisms, coordinate and synchronize warfighting functions and develop and enhance planning interoperability in support of the mutual defense treaty.
“This year, I MEF serves as the U.S. joint task force and training audience in the bilateral command post exercise,” said Maj. Ben Gallo, I MEF lead planner for Exercise Balikatan. “Marines and Sailors from across the MEF, along with partners and augments from the joint force, will support the Armed Forces of the Philippines general headquarters to strengthen our bilateral partnership and promote interoperability.”
In addition to the CPX, I MEF will undergo JTF certification, which increases unit operability and readiness.
“With the natural alignment of I MEF's core mission requirements and our assessed JTF essential tasks, our command is an excellent option for employment in crisis or contingency,” said Gallo. “Following U.S. Indo-Pacific Command certification, I MEF is poised to support partnership efforts in the Philippines and beyond, as we work alongside our Filipino partners, III MEF, and the joint force in support of theater security objectives.”
The I MEF staff has been working for more than eight months in preparation for their efforts here in Manila for Exercise Balikatan.
“Since notification that I MEF would serve as the U.S. JTF, we have conducted JTF Staff Academy education, field training and assessments to bring us to execution,” said Gallo. “The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command staff oriented us on the problem with an initial staff assist visit in September, and we worked closely with them to ensure our efforts aligned with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command objectives.”
The months of preparation for the CPX required dedication from both the U.S. Marine Corps and the AFP. In order to ensure success, both allies attended numerous planning sessions to account for every detail required to conduct the exercise.
“We had the opportunity to host our Armed Forces of the Philippines counterparts for planning aboard Camp Pendleton,” said Gallo. “Our efforts together generated common understanding as we work together in scenario execution. The professionalism and commitment of our partners made this exercise possible.”
One of the most important components of the CPX is a communication hub, called the Combined Coordination Center, or CCC, that allows the U.S. and AFP JTFs to work side-by-side and increase their ability to address any crisis or contingency.
“We will focus heavily on the CCC as the primary means of communication and deconfliction between our two forces working shoulder-to-shoulder, together, to advance our mutual security interests,” said Gallo. “I'm thrilled to be a part of a bilateral team that has worked diligently over the past eight months to bring this effort to fruition.”
In addition to the CPX, the cyber defense exercise will provide the first-ever bilateral training for defensive cyber operations and represents a tangible demonstration of modernizing the alliance relationship.
During this training, teams of cyber defense experts will combine efforts to defend a simulated bilateral military network, critical civilian cyber infrastructure, and other digital targets from malign digital actors including criminal gangs, hacker collectives and a fictitious nation-state.
“Our defensive cyber operators are trained and proficient with a variety of tools such as Security Onion, SysInternals Suite, PFSense, OpenVAS, and WireShark which are all being utilized during this exercise,” said 1st Lt. Hannah Couto, battle watch captain, 9th Communication Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group. “These tools will allow our Marines to hunt within the exercise network environment for the opposing force that is also participating.”
Couto said that one of the most important lessons they are learning at Exercise Balikatan is how to operate in a Joint Forces environment where there are conflicting standard operating procedures, documentation and even a language barrier.
“This exercise is teaching us how to adapt and overcome in order to find new ways to communicate with each other,” said Couto.
Exercise Balikatan is scheduled to continue until April 28th. Upon completion, the Marines and Sailors of I MEF hope to not only earn a JTF certification, but more importantly, become better allies and friends with their AFP counterparts.