GENERAL SANTOS CITY – US frigate ship USS Vandergrift arrived here Sunday afternoon and dropped anchor at the Makar port as some 500 American troops prepare for a 72-hour joint naval exercise with the Philippine Navy and coast guards.
Commodore Dave Welsch and the crew of the USS Vandergrift were met by Commodore Marfin Tan (res) and Capt. Robert Empedrad of the Philippine Navy in arrival honors that were dampened by heavy downpour.
Welsch is commanding general of Task Group 73.1 of the US Navy.
Commodore Philip Cacayan, head of the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao of the Philippine Navy, early in the week said US troop movement inland will be restricted and confined to civic military operations. He said requests for media to board the ships while on exercise will have to be assessed.
Several squads of US Army Special Forces however are already in the city to hold joint military exercises with the Philippine Marines.
The two other US ships expected to participate in the activities failed to join USS Vandergrift.
Sources said US Coast Guard ship USCG Waesche will arrive later in time for the exercise while USNS Safeguard, earlier reported to also join the naval activities here, will instead conduct rescue and salvage training in Manila.
Outside Makar Wharf, some 40 militants belonging to the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) shouted slogans and waved their banners to protest the exercise dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 21012.
In a press statement, Bayan spokesperson Ryan Lariba said the exercise only proves increasing US military intervention in the country.
Patrol Boat BRP Salvador Abcede skipper Cmdr Lued Lincuna however said the joint exercise will enable the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard to upgrade their tactical capabilities considering that the US Navy have far more advance tactics in naval maneuver and warfare .
Cmdr Lincuna told journalists who boarded the Philippine Navy patrol boat in meeting USS Vandergrift at the mouth of Sarangani Bay just off the coast of Maasim that the exercise will be held in the “Mindanao sea” and will be out of sight of residents around the bay.
“It will also involve live fire exercises,” Lincuna said. Participating Philippine Navy ships are equipped with 20-mm anti-aircraft guns and caliber .50 heavy machine guns.
The BRP Gregorio del Pilar, recently acquired from the US Coast Guard, is the biggest naval asset of the Philippine Navy. It has an Mk.75 Oto Melara 76 mm Compact main gun, two Mk.38 M242 Bushmaster 25 mm chain gun at midships. It will not be joining CARAT 2012, however.
USS Vandergrift is a Perry-class frigate and is capable of storing and launching guided missiles. It has an Mk 75 76mm/62 caliber rapid firing gun and MK 32 ASW torpedo tubes (two triple mounts). It also houses two Seahawk helicopters and has a crew of 17 officers and 160 enlisted men.
The Philippines will send a 450-man contingent from the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard to the exercise.
The Philippine contingent will be coming fresh from a taxing rescue operations in Sarangani Bay involving scores of fishermen who were drifted away by a strong storm surge last June 12.
Three fishermen are still missing while the death toll have reportedly risen to at least five other people.