By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, PALAWAN—Ridiculous. Disturbing. Humiliating.
These were among the intense reactions to an image of U.S. and Philippine navy officers handling visually distinct rifles at a training exercise aboard combat ship USS Fort Worth docked outside Puerto Princesa City.
The beige-clad U.S. servicemen brandished jet-black high-powered weapons, while their Filipino counterparts in blue coveralls held brick-colored plastic rifles lent by their trainors.
The contrast in the shot was telling: clearly, one was the real deal and the other a synthetic replica for training purposes. The meaning, unsettling for some who saw it: Why didn’t all the sailors just use similar weapons?
The image came from day 2 of this year’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training or CARAT exercises, a run-through of scenarios and exchange of best practices in air and sea situation between the two countries.
The 2015 CARAT was conducted in the waters around Palawan–right in the neighborhood of a simmering territorial dispute between the Philippines, its neighbors and China.
Seeing ABS-CBN News video of the exercises, activist coalition Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan issued a statement deploring this distribution of weapons.
They called it a reminder of the “grossly unequal relationship” between the U.S. and the Philippines and questioned its benefit to the country’s asserting its sovereignty in the disputed West Philippine Sea. They even called out President Aquino for allowing troops to be put in this “embarassing situation”.
“Any nation watching the video of Filipinos with fake guns will surely laugh at us… Does this mean that even our supposed ally doesn’t even [sic] trust us?” Renato Reyes, Bayan’s secretary general said in the write-up.
But at the CARAT closing ceremonies today, local naval officials were surprised that there was even such an issue.
“It’s normal,” navy spokesperson Lt. Liezl Vidallon kept repeating, in reference to the use of replicas for training.
It was, after all, just training, added exercise director Capt. Robert Empedrad. Training did include precautions, whether it be using gun replicas or actual guns without ammo.
“We don’t use live ammunition during exercises,” Empedrad said. “I’m sure that the ones used by our counterparts are just training weapons.”
The maneuvers involving the said guns are called VBSS for visit, board, search and seizure—how troops would subdue a ship and its occupants. The entire scheme hardly needed a gun to be actually fired.
Other exercises that day included a simultaneous debris sweep of the deck and a simulated helicopter crash on the ship.
In it, Filipino responders cautiously approached the supposed crash site with empty fire hoses before twirling the hoses’ ends in the direction of the imaginary fire.
Despite being in simulations and knowingly carrying props, the servicemen gamely carried out the operations with intent and seriousness.
Empedrad said that if anyone were to feel slighted by the assignment of plastic rifles, it would have been him and his troops. But none of them, he said, took offense.
“The crew of the Philippine navy vessels [is] in high spirits. Masaya sila, they are proud of what is being done in the exercises,” he said.
Many commenters of the much-shared image echoed the vice-admiral in seeing the fake guns in the context of training.
Some dusted off their experience in the U.S. military to say that replicas (called professional training weapons or “blue/red guns”) are the first issued weapons in training processes—yet these still carry the same weight and feel as the real thing.
Guns carrying blanks would be issued higher up the process, followed by ones with live ammo.
But aside from being SOP, commenters said the biggest factor to preventing use of live ammunition for all parties is safety, especially on a cramped area such as a ship.
Beyond the gun replicas and dummies for first aid practice, other activities in the CARAT were as real as they got.
The last few days of the exercise involved the sailors boarding real combat ships and firing real ammunition against bright-colored balloon targets (a.k.a. “killer tomatoes”) thrown to the sea.
Vice-Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Philippine navy’s western command, said the trainings first had to focus on developing the team’s capability and capacity.
“Once we have achieved that, we can already address a whole range of threats, from the most likely to the most dangerous,” he said.
The CARAT—which the U.S. also holds with 8 other countries in South and Southeast Asia—has been going on in Philippine waters since 1995.
Only now in the age of social media and open (though still limited) access for the media have the details of the exercises been made public and scrutinized.
Some have interpreted the issuance of particular guns as a symptom of mistrust. But if the navy officers of both countries were asked, the CARAT itself going on for this long proves the contrary.
Philippine navy officials admitted they were the ones who learned more than they were able to impart from this year’s exercises. But their U.S. counterparts don’t belittle the knowledge in navigating Philippine waters that they’ve gotten from the Filipinos.
“We always learn a little more when we view the world’s problems through another set of eyes,” said Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore, Destroyer squadron 7.
Looking at the younger sailors present at the closing event, Kacher said the lessons exchanged during the CARAT would help these men work together as they become the future officers and leaders of their two countries.