F-15 Eagles Train with the Philippines Over South China Sea

The U.S. and the Philippines conducted a three-day aerial exercise together last week, with fighters from both nations operating over the strategically vital South China Sea.

The joint drill ran from Nov. 21-23, with two U.S. F-15 Eagles flying alongside two Philippines Air Force FA-50s, a Pacific Air Forces spokesperson told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

The aerial exercise was part of a larger ”maritime and aerial cooperation activity” between U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, according to a PACAF release.

The South China Sea is a hotly contested region—the People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over much of the heavily-trafficked waters and has used what the U.S. and its allies call “coercive” and “aggressive” behavior to reinforce its claims.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, continue to operate in the region in accordance with international law, even as the Pentagon has noted an uptick in unsafe and unprofessional incidents by Chinese warplanes and ships.

“U.S. forces routinely operate with Allies and partners in defense of the rules-based international order and will continue to do so to maintain peace and stability in the region,” the PACAF release noted.

Two Philippine Air Force FA-50s fly alongside two U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles over the South China Sea, Nov. 21, 2023. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexis Redin

The U.S. and the Philippines—which also has claims in the South China Sea—have tightened their alliance in recent months. In March, U.S. Air Force F-22s deployed to the Philippines for the first time ever, and in May, the two countries reintroduced the Cope Thunder aerial exercise after a 33-year hiatus.

More recently, on Nov. 6, the two countries marked the completion of the Basa Air Base runway upgrade, a project backed by a $24 million investment from Washington.

The upgraded 8,000-foot runway featuring reinforced pavement can now accommodate larger aircraft, such as cargo planes used by the Philippine Air Force.

It is expected that runway will also facilitate future U.S. aircraft operations, as part of the countries’ recently expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Basa Air Base, situated about 40 miles northwest of metro Manila, was constructed by the U.S. in the 1940s, prior to World War II.

On Nov. 15, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. met in Jakarta, emphasizing alliance modernization and the progress of the EDCA, including the newly finished Basa runway.

As an extension of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, the two Secretaries convened and reaffirmed their commitment to cultivating a transparent and peaceful Indo-Pacific region.

Austin also reiterated Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines’ sovereignty in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Beijing’s territorial claims of the South China Sea overlap with the Philippines’ EEZ, leading to tensions and disputes over maritime rights and resources.

In October, the U.S. expressed support for the Philippines against China’s Coast Guard and maritime militia, which obstructed a Philippine resupply mission in the South China Sea.

Austin and Teodoro Jr. also pledged to enhance bilateral operations, including the upcoming annual joint exercise dubbed ‘Balikatan’ (meaning “shoulder to shoulder”) in 2024.

This past April, the two nations hosted the largest-ever Balikatan exercise, involving 12,200 U.S. troops and 5,400 AFP personnel.