US, Philippines Flex Military Muscle in South China Sea with Decommissioned Tanker Sinking

Decommissioned Tanker Sinking

9th May 2024

Report : US, Philippines sink ship in S. China Sea drills

Laoag, Philippines – In a display of combined military power, the United States and the Philippines conducted a joint military exercise in the South China Sea, culminating in the sinking of a decommissioned tanker vessel. The exercise, Balikatan (meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog), is an annual event designed to strengthen ties and improve interoperability between the two nations’ militaries. This year’s iteration, Balikatan 39-2024, drew particular attention due to the chosen target – a decommissioned, China-made tanker named BRP Lake Caliraya.

The sinking exercise involved a complex choreography of air and naval assets from both countries. Philippine Navy vessels, including the frigate BRP Jose Rizal, launched anti-ship missiles alongside Philippine Air Force fighter jets and helicopters. US participation included F-16 fighter jets, an AC-130 gunship, and a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Notably, Australia also contributed to the exercise with participation from their Air Force. The BRP Lake Caliraya, a small tanker retired from service in 2020, was purposefully positioned and ultimately sunk after a barrage of attacks.

Source: News9 Live

Military officials from both sides emphasized the focus on honing skills and practicing coordinated responses. Lieutenant Colonel Omar Al Assaf, the lead Philippine planner for the exercise, highlighted the scenario: “This mission simulates preventing an aggressor from landing on Philippine soil. The ability of both the US and the Filipino army and air force to work together to achieve this is extremely lethal.” Lieutenant Colonel Matt Cahill, a US Army unit commander participating in Balikatan, echoed the sentiment, comparing the drills to team sports where practice is crucial for success.

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The selection of the BRP Lake Caliraya, a Chinese-made vessel, did raise eyebrows. Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci downplayed any symbolism, stating that “the vessel has been used in the Philippines for a long time. So any attachment, if ever there is, doesn’t matter at all.” However, analysts suggest the choice might hold a subtle message. The South China Sea is a contested region, with China claiming vast swathes of the waterway despite objections from several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines. Tensions have flared in recent years due to Chinese actions, including the deployment of coast guard vessels and maritime militia to intimidate and harass Filipino fishermen and officials. The sinking exercise, with its focus on smaller, less expensive munitions, could be seen as a way to showcase the capability to counter China’s growing coast guard fleet and militia presence.

The US involvement in Balikatan also carries geopolitical weight. The US maintains a long-standing alliance with the Philippines, and these exercises are seen as a way to reassure regional allies of American commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The participation of Australia, another US ally with growing concerns about China’s assertiveness, further underscores the strategic message being sent.


The sinking of the BRP Lake Caliraya during Balikatan 39-2024 is more than just a military exercise. It serves as a potent symbol of the growing tensions in the South China Sea. While the focus is on interoperability and preparedness, the choice of target and participation of regional allies like Australia hint at a broader strategic message aimed at deterring Chinese adventurism. The coming years are likely to see continued focus on the South China Sea, with military exercises and diplomatic maneuvers playing a key role in shaping the future of this strategically vital region.

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