NBC News recently cited two anonymous defense officials who stated that as early as tomorrow there could be a named program to begin conducting airstrikes in the Philippines, most likely with Predator drones. While this is certainly one possibility, it is highly unlikely. First, this would mean a new escalation in American military involvement in the Philippines and second the sitting Philippine government is unlikely to support such a move considering the fact that terrorism is not (at this time) an existential threat to the government and because the Duterte administration has been openly hostile to the U.S. government.
Granted, much of this is bluster and political rhetoric. While Duterte complains loudly, he has not halted US military exercises like Balikatan, kicked out U.S. Special Forces advisors, and seems to have no trouble accepting gifts of U.S. military aid like the two surveillance aircraft we handed over last month. Unilateral U.S. military action in the Philippines would also require the government to pass a referendum, a high hurdle to pass before anything actually begins to move. Current U.S. Special Operations personnel in the Philippines are there under the Visiting Forces Agreement and do not participate in combat operations.
There is also the question of necessity. In SOFREP’s many interviews with active and retired Philippine military officers, they have often stated that while they greatly appreciate American military support and wish to continue a respectful relationship with U.S. military advisors, that they do not need or want America to fight their battles for them. To some extent, this could be chalked up to national pride speaking, but there is also an underlying truth to it. The Armed Forces of the Philippines are not Iraqi security forces, they have stood their ground against the enemy.
It is true that the Philippines need to further develop and refine their Air Force and close air support capabilities. During a conversation with SOFREP, someone intimately familiar with the local military capabilities joked that the Philippine Air Force was, “all air and no force.” Some steps are underway to correct this and there are hopes of acquiring further training and equipment for the Air Force Forward Air Controllers (FAC) as well.
So why would the United States wish to escalate and further entrench ourselves in the Philippines? A cynical mind would say that we are seeking to subvert the growing Chinese presence in the country, which may play into the decision-making process. More likely, the NBC report refers to just one contingency plan amongst many others. It makes sense for defense planners to anticipate several different eventualities.
The recent conflict in Marawi with the supposedly ISIS-affiliated Maute Group is certainly troubling, but also follows up on the 2013 siege of Zamboanga, and many other insurgent endeavors to raise their banner above towns, villages, and cities, and a long running insurgency involving numerous groups that stretches back all the way to the Huk rebellion in the 1940’s and 50’s. What new emergency requires the unilateral attention of U.S. military forces or what long-standing strategic goal can be achieved by such an action is certainly far from clear.
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