For the first time in 16 years, U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft will operate out of the Philippines when the annual Balikatan exercise kicks off Thursday, military officials said.

F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft and about 70 airmen from the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., will join the Philippines-U.S. bilateral military humanitarian assistance and training exercise, scheduled through April 30.

According to the military, this year’s Balikatan — which means "shoulder-to-shoulder" in Tagalog — will consist of humanitarian and civic assistance work, a combined staff exercise and field training.

The activities enable soldiers to get to know each other, train together "and provide assistance in communities where the need is greatest," U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney said in a news release from her post in Manila.

On Monday, PHIBRON-11, the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious squadron, arrived in the Philippines for the exercise. It comprises the USS Essex, USS Denver, USS Tortuga and USS Harpers Ferry, all from Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, along with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

According to a military news release, 16 planners with the Philippines military were embarked aboard the ships in the final days leading to the exercise.

"This provides us a unique opportunity to plan amphibious operations and gain a better understanding of U.S. and Philippine Navy and Marine Corps capabilities and limitations," Marine Lt. Col. Rodney Legowski, operations officer for the Okinawa-based 31st MEU, said in the release.

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