canada africa partner reservation US troops return to strategic islands near Taiwan for airstrike exercises

US troops return to strategic islands near Taiwan for airstrike exercises

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Pcf.  Jorze Jauand, an infantryman with the 25th Infantry Division, secures an area during a Balikatan airstrike exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Pcf. Jorze Jauand, an infantryman with the 25th Infantry Division, secures an area during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

BATAN ISLAND, Philippines — U.S., Philippine and Australian troops are practicing attacks on windswept islands south of Taiwan — the kind of mission they may have to carry out if conflict erupts over the island or in the South China Sea.

Early Sunday morning, 76 members of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry gathered with about a dozen Australian soldiers on Calayan, an island in the Luzon Strait that separates the main island of the Philippines from Taiwan.

The troops loaded UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks flown by the 25th Aviation Brigade and traveled 80 miles north to Batan, a dumbbell-shaped island about 120 miles south of Taiwan.

The helicopters landed in a grassy area next to Boulder Bay, a stony, wave-swept coastline near Mount Iraya, a 3,000-foot active volcano. There they were met by 35 Philippine troops who arrived a day earlier.

“Our main goal is to continue to integrate with our partners, both the Filipinos and the Australians,” Army Capt. Mike Shipley told Stars and Stripes on Batan.

“These are guys we could fight together on the battlefield one day,” said Shipley, who commands Company A, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter flies soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division over Batan Island, Philippines, during the Balikatan exercise, May 5, 2024.

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter flies 25th Infantry Division soldiers over Batan Island, Philippines, during the Balikatan exercise, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Batan and several nearby islands lie next to the Bashi Channel, which connects the Philippine and South China Seas, where Beijing has territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, including the Philippines.

The canal is a route for the Chinese navy to the east coast of Taiwan and the Pacific Ocean. It is also a potential transit point for US troops heading to the Taiwan Strait from Guam.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared his intention to reunite the self-governing and democratic island of Taiwan with mainland China, by force if necessary.

The airstrike on Batan was part of the annual Balikatan exercise involving 16,000 troops, mainly from the US and the Philippines. Balikatan – “shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog – started on April 22 and ends on Friday.

During last year’s exercise, 25th ID soldiers, Marines and Philippine troops carried out airstrikes on Batan, Calayan and Fuga. That training sent a message to China that America is ready to defend its ally’s maritime territory, Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, then commander of the 25th ID, said at the time.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division are loaded onto a CH-47F Chinook during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division are loaded onto a CH-47F Chinook during a Balikatan air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division exit a CH-47F Chinook during an air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division exit a CH-47F Chinook during an air assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

During Sunday’s airstrike, Sgt. Michael Kawell, a squad leader, sweated in the morning sun as his friends sought shade under coconut trees near the landing zone.

He said the troops, who spent time at Fort Magsaysay and Camp Melchor F. dela Cruz in Luzon before leaving for the islands, spent three days at Calayan. They marched across the island to scout an airfield.

They expect to remain on Batan in the coming days for more reconnaissance patrols to explore the local airport and port, Kawell said. U.S. military and Philippine divers were busy clearing debris from the seabed in the port on Sunday to improve ship access.

“The waiting is the hardest part,” he said of the mission’s downtime. “When you train, time goes by quickly. The waiting sucks.”

In their spare time, the soldiers have been climbing trees, picking coconuts and eating, Kawell said. They sleep in hammocks between coconut trees.

“Anytime we sleep in a hammock and not in a hole, it’s a good day for us,” he said.

Kawell looked up at Mount Iraya and compared Batan to Hawaii.

“It seems like we have landed at the lowest point of the island,” he said. “So wherever we go, we’ll probably be walking uphill.”

Balikatan will include additional air strikes on the island by members of the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment and Philippine troops, Army Col. Rob Shaw, who commands the 25th ID’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said in a telephone interview on 22 April from Fort Magsaysay.

This mission gave troops a sense of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, Kawell added.

“You’re in Hawaii and then you fly all the way here and it’s still the Pacific Ocean,” he said.