SAN NARCISO, Philippines — “We are the eyes in the sky,” said U.S. Army Spc. Breanna Olivieri, a Mississippi Army National Guard air defense battle management systems operator who participated in Exercise Balikatan 23. “They call us Eagle Eye. We pick up drones, unmanned aerial surveillance, cruise missiles, and any aerial threats.”
Olivieri and the 1st Battalion, 204th Air Defense Artillery Regiment — one of two National Guard units taking part in this year’s exercise — traveled to a remote seaside location near San Narciso to provide short-range air defense with radar systems and Avenger Air Defense Systems at Balikatan 23 from April 18 to 26.
Approximately 5,400 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and 12,200 of the U.S. military from the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and special operations forces, along with Australian Defence Force personnel, took part in the exercise to hone tactical proficiency and strengthen Indo-Pacific military coordination.
“The mission is great, just going to the Philippines. All my Soldiers have been able to do things that they would have never gotten to do had they not joined the National Guard,” said U.S. Army Capt. Brister Bishop, the commander of Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 204th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.
“We are training with the Philippine Armed Forces. Their navy, marines, army and air force have all come out here to review our equipment and discuss partner capabilities,” Bishop said. “We’ve been fascinated in learning what the host nation uses for air defense and discovering a lot of the [system] language is common.”
During the demonstrations, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Antoine Brown, an Avenger Air Defense System team chief with the 204th, was thrilled to discover their Philippine counterparts were just as enthusiastic about learning as the Guard members were about teaching.
“They were asking questions that master gunners are supposed to ask, so we let them get in the turret atynd spin it around. They want to learn, and they’re eager to know how the system works,” said Brown. “I’ll bet you if we took them for about two weeks, we could have a team up and running.”
Brown added that in addition to the hands-on portion of the exchange, their counterparts’ interest also spoke to the overarching importance of regional security.
“To see them asking those questions shows how collaborative they want to be and shows they know the importance of the U.S. being here,” said Brown, adding that it demonstrated how the exercise contributed to strengthening partner capability in the Indo-Pacific.
The 204th’s participation in the 38th iteration of the annual bilateral exercise culminated with a live fire April 25. Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and senior Philippine and Australian armed forces members witnessed the event. The Guard members used their Avenger Air Defense Systems, armed with Stinger missiles and .50-caliber machine guns, to shoot down simulated drones.
In addition, the 204th provided aerial monitoring equipment such as Sentinel radars and Forward Area Air Defense operational systems that provided a common air picture for active-duty Army and Marine Corps units coordinating for integrated air and missile defense. This information was shared with their higher active-duty command element in Tokyo and back to the United States.
“This event enhanced the interoperability of the Philippines and U.S. forces in conducting combined joint operations utilizing both countries’ army, navy and air force assets in conducting maritime security and territorial defense,” said Philippine army Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine, Balikatan 2023 exercise director.
While the exercise was the largest in Balikatan history, Soldiers credited interpersonal relationships forged as the greatest force multiplier.
“The second benefit (in addition to working with international partners) was getting to work with other members of the Joint Force, the Marines and our active-duty counterparts,” said Bishop. He added that these interactions made for a highly valuable annual training period that could not be replicated elsewhere.
The success of Balikatan 23 underscored the enduring partnership between the Philippines and the United States while reaffirming the National Guard’s pivotal role as a globally engaged operational force and a trusted partner within the Indo-Pacific region.