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Filipino soldiers awed by US advanced weaponry showcased in Balikatan

FORT MAGSAYSAY, Philippines—It was the first time in his six years of  service that Private First Class Ronnel Gragasin joined the Balikatan, an  annual training and war games that bring Filipino and American soldiers  together.

Emerging from the live firing exercise at the Special Forces’ Fernandez  Hill in this military fort in Palayan City last week, Gragasin, a member of a platoon from the  Army’s 50th Infantry Battalion, was amazed by the new gadgets  and weapons used by their American counterparts.

For one, the Americans’ M249 rifle has an approximate range of 750 meters, far better than the 360-meter range of the Filipino soldiers’ M-16 rifle, according to Fernandez.

Colonel Jack Pritchard, leader of over 600 American soldiers and co-commander of the combined armed forces, said this year’s Balikatan has been featuring a unique GPS [global positioning system]-aided gadget that would enable commanders to monitor every movement of their men on the ground.

Pritchard said through the gadget, called the Instrumentation Training System Units (IHits), commanders monitor detailed actions, including troop positioning and fire angling.

This way, he said, the soldiers can be briefed on errors as well as their best moves while in combat.

It was the first time such an equipment was brought out of US territory, Balikatan officials said.

Col. George Avila, co-commander of the exercises, said the training had no preset scenario.

“All that Balikatan aims is interoperability,” Avila said, referring to the preparedness of American and Filipino soldiers to work together and respond to any emergency, including natural disasters.

Pritchard and Avila said soldiers training in this military reservation have been focusing on the exercises despite protests from political activists against the conduct of Balikatan.

Among the exercises being undertaken here are casualty evacuation drills and community relations activities.

Earlier, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. said that besides 2,300 Philippine troops and 4,500 American soldiers, some participants from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other countries have also been taking part in the exercises.

The Balikatan started in various locations in the country on April 16 and will end on April 27.

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