The US Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) and the US Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II aircraft are taking part in the annual military exercise Balikatan.

Balikatan 2019 is the 35th iteration of the exercise between the Philippines and the US. It also involves participation from Australia for humanitarian and civic assistance projects and special operations forces training.

USS Wasp commanding officer captain Colby Howard said: “We are excited to visit the Philippines for the first time since Wasp was forward deployed to Seventh Fleet. Balikatan is a great opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps team and our allies from the Republic of the Philippines to learn from one another, and further improve our ability operate together.”

“The 35th iteration of Exercise Balikatan is aimed at improving both Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and US Forces’ interoperability.”

The exercise will involve around 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops and will run until 12 April.

This is the first time the F-35B aircraft is participating in the exercise. According to the US Navy, the participation of USS Wasp alongside the F-35B represents increased military capability to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.

It will also demonstrate the ability of these naval assets to forward deploy to support an ally in the event of a crisis or natural disaster.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also expected to join Balikatan 2019 for an International Observers Program, which aims to promote greater defence cooperation with ASEAN and other key allies and partners.

The current iteration will focus on enhancing maritime security and amphibious capabilities. The drills will also seek to improve multinational interoperability through military exchanges.

Philippines Exercise Director lieutenant-general Gilbert Gapay said: “The 35th iteration of Exercise Balikatan is aimed at improving both Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and US Forces’ interoperability through trainings that are focused on mutual defence operations and counterterrorism.

“The goal of such is to enhance both militaries’ employment of forces and assistance in the event of crises that threaten the safety and security of the nation.”