(Photo courtesy of Philippine Air Force)

MANILA – The Philippine Air Force (PAF) said it will be playing a larger role in the ongoing "Balikatan" exercises between Filipino and American military units.

"The PAF, utilizing its air assets and equipment, (will be participating) in the activities lined up for the 'Balikatan' such as tactical airlift and airdrop; mass casualty evacuation, aeromedical evacuation, Covid response; air-to-air exercise; base security and aircraft maintenance; radar and radio operations; cybersecurity; water, jungle, and dive search recovery; tactical combat casualty; and care/vehicle extrication," Air Force spokesperson Col. Maynard Mariano said in a statement Sunday night.

"Balikatan" which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” or “shouldering the load together” is an annual joint and combined exercise hosted by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and US Indo-Pacific Command conducted to strengthen bilateral interoperability, capabilities, trust, and cooperation built over decades of shared experiences.

It runs from March 28 to April 8.

"The PAF and the USAF (United States Air Force) will focus on the offensive counter-air and defensive counter air operations; several AFP senior leaders will witness and evaluate the said different scenarios to play out from the backseat of the FA-50PH while engaged with the F-16s and the Hawker Hunters in the counter-air exercises," Mariano added.

AFP chief, Gen. Andres Centino, earlier said this year's "Balikatan" is very remarkable as both countries are able to enforce full implementation of the exercise with approximately 8,900 participants and observers from various militaries.

The figure includes 3,800 AFP members and 5,100 US military personnel -- the largest number of combined personnel of the two militaries in the annual exercise since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic in 2020.

During the "Balikatan" 2021, only 226 American and 415 Filipino military personnel participated while "Balikatan" 2020 was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Centino attributed the sizable contingent for this year to the country's improving Covid-19 situation and easing of safety protocols.

"I would like to express (on) behalf of my government, our profound gratitude to the US government and to the US Armed Forces for your unwavering commitment and support to uphold our obligation to the Mutual Defense Treaty," Centino said. (PNA)