For the first time, U.S. and Philippine forces jointly targeted and sunk a target in the South China Sea off Zambales for Balikatan 2023. The sinking of a World War II-era corvette was the main event for the largest iteration of the joint U.S.-Philippine military exercise to date.
Serving from 1948-2021, Pangasinan was one of nine Malvar-class corvettes that the Philippine Navy received from the U.S. during the Cold War. The corvette partook in many actions during its service life, from disaster relief to engagements against rebel groups. After an inspection by Philippine officials, BRP Pangasinan was towed out of Cavite in its last mission as Balikatan 2023’s SINKEX target off Zambales.
The SINKEX kicked off with naval gunfire from BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150). After that, more assets from various U.S. and Philippine branches joined in. The most publicized section of the SINKEX was the ground fires component, in which both the Philippine President and U.S. Ambassador were in attendance. Philippine Army Artillery Regiment ATMOS 2000s, M-71 Soltams, and M101 guns were deployed for the Philippine ground fire contribution towards the SINKEX. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army deployed a HIMARS battery from the 1st Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF), a first for the service. The 25th Infantry Division also contributed with their guns.
While this was the main event of Balikatan 2023, several unforeseen incidents occurred during the SINKEX. Intrusions into the area of the SINKEX from “interlopers,” which supposedly included at least one vessel and an aircraft, stopped firing from the ground-based fires for almost an hour.
The performance of the Army HIMARS was also questionable, with it being reported on the SINKEX’s live stream that the system missed all six of its shots at the World War II-era corvette. In previous SINKEXs, such as those held at RIMPAC exercises, targets were relatively static which allowed for munitions that struggle or cannot hit moving targets to participate. One of these systems that cannot hit moving targets is HIMARS with its current set of rockets. Due to unknown circumstances, BRP Pangasinan developed a drift that threw off the HIMARS’ targeting.
Yet, even with these difficulties, the SINKEX was deemed to be “amazing” by both forces. Lt. Col. Nick Mannweiler, Communications Strategy Planner for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, told Naval News the actual purpose of the exercise.
Connecting the Kill Chain
The SINKEX was more about deploying concepts relating to Force Design 2030 and Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations rather than just sinking a ship. Specifically, concepts relating to integrating fires, sensors, and command and control:
“Sinking the ship is an obvious desired outcome from a professional warfighter’s perspective, but the goal wasn’t to do this as quickly and realistically as possible. Otherwise, we would have used a Mk-48 ADCAP or a Harpoon or JAGM or JDAM. The true purpose of yesterday and the mutual training value was sensing the target at sea with an ashore sensor expeditionary advanced base location, pass that to a Marine Division COC in Cavite, augment it with a combined joint sensor and intel fusion center, then pass 10-digit grid coordinates to ground and air fires from both countries.”
During the SINKEX, the joint U.S.-Philippine force managed to connect this kill chain.
“That’s extremely hard to do for just the U.S. in a joint environment. We did it fast enough that HIMARS rounds could get extremely close for point detonation, but still have to aim ahead with 5 minute time of flight.”
Mannweiler highlighted the variety of aviation employed, which included F-35Bs, F-16s, FA-50PHs, A-29Bs, AH-1s, T-129Bs, and AH-64s:
“Aviation-delivered fires demonstrated the most amazing killing power. Cobras hit [the] bridge and waterline. Apaches drilled it with a barrage of Hellfires. Then F-35Bs ruined the fun for everyone else, dropping 10x GBU-12s and GBU-32s in under two minutes. The smoke cleared and she was nowhere to be seen.”
After a hail of naval gunfire, artillery shells, and laser-guided bombs, Pagasinan slipped under the waves.
The Philippine perspective
Many of the concepts tested and employed during this SINKEX are being closely followed by Philippine forces, specifically the Philippine Army and Marine Corps. The two forces are looking to develop similar units to the American MDTF and Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR).
The PMC was seen to have deployed elements of its Coastal Defense Regiment (CDR) during Balikatan 2023, learning from their American counterparts on the Avenger anti-aircraft system and HIMARS. The CDR is to operate three batteries of BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles, previously ordered by Manila in 2022. The Philippine Army’s Artillery Regiment is also expected to order the missiles in the next phase of modernization.
This SINKEX was one of the many firsts, including a joint littoral operation in Batanes and a Patriot missile live fire, held during this year’s Balikatan exercise.