Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, conduct team live-fire training during the Salaknib exercise at Colonel Ernesto Rabina Air Base, Philippines, March 8, 2022.

Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, conduct team live-fire training during the Salaknib exercise at Colonel Ernesto Rabina Air Base, Philippines, March 8, 2022. (Matthew Mackintosh/U.S. Army)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Like last year, soldiers with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division will spend much of March and April in the Philippines as part of Operation Pathways, an expeditionary-style training campaign with decade-old roots.

But with the announcement this week by the Philippines and U.S. that the two nations will speed up defense cooperation, soldiers from the Hawaii-based 25th ID will likely be spending more time in that Southeast Asian nation than in years past.

“It looks like we're going to be able to open up the aperture, not only on this year in Salaknib and Balikatan, but perhaps in years to come as well,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, the division’s commander, said Wednesday during a phone interview.

Salaknib, an army-to-army exercise, begins in early March. The much larger Balikatan, joint training that includes U.S. Marines, sailors and airmen, runs through most of April.

“We’ll actually get another bite at the apple later on this summer with another bilateral engagement with the Philippine army that we're calling Salaknib 2, but that exercise is kind of still coming together,” Ryan said.

The nascent Salaknib 2 and deepening defense cooperation announced this week are part of a general warming of relations between the U.S. and Philippines with the election last year of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president.

His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had slowed implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which had called for increasing rotations of U.S. troops in the country. Duterte took an antagonistic approach toward America, while striking a more conciliatory pose with China.

The neighboring countries have long grappled with dueling claims of sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea. Marcos has welcomed greater American assistance in curtailing Chinese maritime incursions into areas the Philippines considers its territory.

Operation Pathways began in 2014 as Pacific Pathways and deployed small units in the Indo-Pacific region for a few months at a time by moving through a series of established multinational exercises.

It has since grown into something well beyond a string of exercises.

“We don't view them as independent events,” Ryan said. “We view them as a campaign. That’s the model that we apply, that this is a campaign for the 25th division in the region.

“When we're forward in the region, and we're operating alongside partners and allies, especially in a place like the Philippines, we get a lot of feedback that our deterrence efforts have momentum,” he said.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes last year, Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, described Operation Pathways as “posture for us.”

“The goal is to get to about an eight-month period of time where we are operating in the region west of the international date line as a way to contribute to deterrence against our adversaries in the region,” Ryan said.

“I believe strongly – and I think there's a lot of data to support the fact – that when we are forward with ready forces, we're deterring more than we are when we're back here on Oahu in Hawaii or elsewhere,” he said.

The lead element from the 25th for this year’s Pathways is the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, supported by the division’s aviation, artillery and sustainment brigades, Ryan said.

The brigade prepared for Pathways with training on Oahu in October as part of the Army’s Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, which operates large-scale combat training centers in Hawaii and Alaska, as well as one that is deployable throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Ryan is headed to the Philippines this weekend to kick off a senior-leader symposium, where he will meet leaders of the Philippine army’s 5th and 7th divisions, he said. The 25th ID will execute a staff exercise with that pair of divisions during Salaknib, he said.

Operation Pathways continues with the Talisman Saber exercise in Australia, slated for July and early August.

The Pathways campaign closes out with Garuda Shield in Indonesia in September.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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