American troops return to strategic islands near Taiwan for air-assault practice

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Pcf. Jorze Jauand, a 25th Infantry Division infantryman, secures an area during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

BATAN ISLAND, Philippines — US, Philippine and Australian troops are practicing raids on wind-swept islands south of Taiwan — the sort of mission they may need to execute if conflict breaks out over the island or in the South China Sea.

Early Sunday, 76 members of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry gathered with about a dozen Australian soldiers on Calayan, an isle in the Luzon Strait separating the Philippines’ main island from Taiwan.

The troops loaded onto UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks flown by the 25th Aviation Brigade and traveled 80 miles north to Batan, a dumbbell-shaped isle about 120 miles south of Taiwan.

The choppers landed in a grassy field beside Boulder Bay, a stony, wave-battered coastline near Mount Iraya, a 3,310-foot active volcano. They were met there by 35 Filipino troops who arrived a day earlier.

“Our main objective is to continue to integrate with our partners, both the Filipinos and Australians,” Army Capt. Mike Shipley told Stars and Stripes on Batan.

“These are guys who we could, one day, fight alongside on the battlefield,” said Shipley, who commands Company A, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter flies 25th Infantry Division soldiers over Batan Island, Philippines, during the Balikatan exercise, May 5, 2024.

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter flies 25th Infantry Division soldiers over Batan Island, Philippines, during the Balikatan exercise, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division walk toward a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Batan and several nearby islands are next to the Bashi Channel, which links the Philippine and South China seas, where Beijing has territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, including the Philippines.

The channel is a route for China’s navy to the east coast of Taiwan and the Pacific. It’s also a potential transit point for US forces headed to the Taiwan Strait from Guam.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated his intention to reunite the self-governing and democratic island of Taiwan with mainland China, by force if necessary.

The air assault onto Batan was part of the annual Balikatan exercise that includes 16,000 troops, mostly from the US and Philippines. Balikatan — “shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog” — started April 22 and wraps up Friday.

During last year’s exercise, 25th ID soldiers, Marines and Filipino troops air-assaulted onto Batan, Calayan and Fuga. That training sent a message to China that America is ready to defend its ally’s sea territory, Maj. Gene. Joseph Ryan, then-commander of 25th ID, said at the time.

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division are loaded onto a CH-47F Chinook during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division are loaded onto a CH-47F Chinook during a Balikatan air-assault drill on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division exit a CH-47F Chinook during air-assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024.

Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division exit a CH-47F Chinook during air-assault exercise on Batan Island, Philippines, May 5, 2024. (Jonathan Snyder/Stars and Stripes)

During Sunday’s air assault, Sgt. Michael Kawell, a squad leader, sweated in the morning sun while his buddies sought shade under coconut trees near the landing zone.

He said the troops, who spent time at Fort Magsaysay and Camp Melchor F. dela Cruz on Luzon before heading to the islands, spent three days on Calayan. They marched across the island to check out an airfield.

They expect to remain on Batan in the coming days for more reconnaissance patrols to check out the local airfield and port, Kawell said. US Army and Filipino divers were preparing to clear debris from the seabed at the port on Sunday to improve vessel access.

“The waiting is the hardest part,” he said of the mission’s downtime. “If you are training, time goes by fast. The waiting sucks.”

In their downtime, the soldiers have been climbing trees, picking and eating coconuts, Kawell said. They sleep in hammocks tied between coconut trees.

“It’s a good day for us any time we get to sleep in a hammock and not in a hole,” he said.

Looking up at Mount Iraya, Kawell compared Batan to Hawaii.

“It seems like we landed at the lowest point on the island,” he said. “So, wherever we go, we are probably going to walk up hill.”

Balikatan will include additional island air assaults by members of the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment and Filipino troops, Army Col. Rob Shaw, who commands 25th ID’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said in an April 22 phone interview from Fort Magsaysay.

This mission has given troops an idea of ​​the Pacific’s vastness, Kawell added.

“You are in Hawaii and then you fly all the way out here and it’s still the Pacific,” he said.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: American troops return strategic islands Taiwan airassault practice

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