US-Philippine war games open under China-leaning Duterte

Philippine military exercise director Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, left, and US Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 3rd US marine expeditionary force, unfurl the joint US-Philippines military exercise flag at a ceremony in Manila on Monday, May 7. (AFP)
Updated 07 May 2018

US-Philippine war games open under China-leaning Duterte

MANILA: The US and Philippine militaries launched major exercises Monday aimed at fighting global terrorism, while staying mostly quiet on Beijing’s reported installation of missiles in the disputed South China Sea.
The annual maneuvers are the second to be held under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has set aside long-simmering friction over competing claims to the waters in order to court Chinese trade and investment.
The 12-day exercises began less than a week after US network CNBC reported that the Chinese military had over the past month installed anti-ship and air-to-air defenses on islands also claimed by the Philippines.
“This exercise was scheduled whether those missiles were there or not,” US Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson told reporters in Manila.
“The exercises really have very little to do with recent developments in the area,” said Nicholson, the US director of the “Balikatan” (“shoulder-to-shoulder“) maneuvers.
The South China Sea issue has been brewing for years, with Vietnam, Malaysia and others also staking claims to waters with vital global shipping routes and what are believed to be significant oil and natural gas deposits.
Nicholson’s Filipino counterpart, Lt. General Emmanuel Salamat, sidestepped the issue while highlighting the need to improve the capabilities of Filipino forces to fight terrorism.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had used the exercises to boost the Philippine military’s capability to deter China, which claims most of the South China Sea.
Duterte refocused the joint exercises after he was elected in 2016, steering them toward addressing domestic problems.
Last year Balikatan focused mainly on honing humanitarian responses to the Philippines’ frequent natural disasters.
This year’s terror focus comes after Daesh group supporters seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year, triggering a five-month battle with US-backed Filipino troops that killed some 1,200 people.
“This is focusing mostly on countering terrorism ... that will allow us to respond to a similar scenario in the future,” Salamat said.
The US and Australia have pledged to provide more training and assistance to Filipino troops, who struggled in Marawi’s urban battleground after decades fighting low-intensity rural-based communist and Muslim insurgencies.
Most of the 5,000 Filipino troops and 3,000 US counterparts taking part in the maneuvers are from special operations units who will train in mock urban terrain to respond to “crises and calamities, either natural or man-made,” Salamat said.
Australia and Japan are also sending a total of 42 military observers to Balikatan, he added.


Two astronauts aboard SpaceX rocket as historic flight nears launch

Updated 8 min 39 sec ago

Two astronauts aboard SpaceX rocket as historic flight nears launch

  • It would also be NASA’s first human spaceflight launched from US soil in nearly a decade

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: Despite more storms in the forecast, two NASA astronauts climbed into their capsule Saturday for a second attempt at a history-making ride into orbit aboard a rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
With the flight already delayed three days by bad weather, forecasters put the odds of acceptable conditions at 50-50 for the 3:22 p.m. liftoff of the 270-foot Falcon 9 in what would be the first launch of astronauts into orbit by a private company.
Their destination: the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth.
It would also be NASA’s first human spaceflight launched from US soil in nearly a decade.
The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the US over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. NASA officials and others held out hope the flight would would lift American spirits.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity here for America to maybe pause and look up and see a bright, shining moment of hope at what the future looks like, that the United States of America can do extraordinary things even in difficult times,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Veteran astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken pulled on their angular, white-and-black spacesuits with help from technicians wearing masks, gloves and black hoods that made them look like ninjas.
Before setting out for the launch pad in a gull-wing Tesla SUV — another Musk product — Behnken pantomimed a hug of his 6-year-old son, Theo, and said: “Are you going to listen to Mommy and make her life easy?” Hurley blew kisses to his 10-year-old son and wife.
SpaceX and NASA monitored the weather not just at Kennedy Space Center, where rain, thick clouds and the chance of lightning threatened another postponement, but all the way up the Eastern Seaboard and across the North Atlantic to Ireland. Waves and wind need to be within certain limits in case the astronauts have to make an emergency splashdown on the way to orbit.
Wednesday’s countdown of the rocket and its bullet-shaped Dragon capsule was halted at just under 17 minutes because of the threat of lightning.
Ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take US astronauts to and from the space station.
“I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t nervous,” Bridenstine said before the launch attempt. “We want to do everything we can to minimize the risk, minimize the uncertainty, so that Bob and Doug will be safe.”
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence planned to return for the second launch attempt.
Because of the coronavirus, NASA severely limited the number of employees, visitors and journalists allowed deep inside Kennedy Space Center, and the crowd was relatively small, at a few thousand. At the center’s tourist complex, though, all 4,000 tickets were snapped up in a few hours.
The space agency urged people to stay safe and watch from home, and by NASA’s count, at least 1.14 million viewers followed the launch preparation online. But spectators also began lining the Cape Canaveral area’s beaches and roads. Signs along the main beach drag read, “Godspeed.”
Among the spectators was Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo, New York, who staked out a view of the launch pad from a park in Titusville.
“It’s pretty historically significant in my book and a lot of other people’s books. With everything that’s going on in this country right now, it’s important that we do things extraordinary in life,” Wight said. “We’ve been bombarded with doom and gloom for the last six, eight weeks, whatever it is, and this is awesome. It brings a lot of people together.”
NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to taxi astronauts to and from the space station, under contracts totaling $7 billion. Both companies launched their crew capsules last year with test dummies. SpaceX’s Dragon aced all of its objectives, while Boeing’s Starliner capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and was almost destroyed because of software errors.
As a result, the first Starliner flight carrying astronauts isn’t expected until next year.