THE United States last week delivered brand new military assets to the Philippines – two surveillance aircraft and rocket munitions – significantly beefing up the country’s defence capability as fighting with Islamist militants in the southern island of Mindanao continues for the third month now.
In separate occasions the past week, Washington transferred to Manila two Cessna-208B Grand Caravan Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft and 1,040 pieces of 2.75” rocket motors and 992 pieces of 2.75” rockets for use by the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
The defence assistance from Washington came even as President Rodrigo Duterte continues to pursue a more independent foreign policy, pivoting away from the US, a long-time military ally, and towards China and Russia instead. In June, China handed over PHP370 million (US$7.3 million) worth of firearms and ammunition to the Philippines, apparently as a result of cosying ties.
But for the latest military aid to the Philippines from Washington, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Y. Kim and Pacific Command deputy commander Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton turned over the “eye in the sky” surveillance planes at Villamor Air Base, the PAF’s main headquarters in Metro Manila, on July 27.
“The latest aircraft (donation) clearly manifests the strong relations of the Philippines and United States’ armed forces,” Kim said during the handover.
As allies, it is very important for both armed forces to help each other, especially in times of crisis, the envoy added.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana received the two Cessna-208B ISR aircraft along with Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año and PAF commanding general Lieutenant General Edgar Fallorina.
Lorenzana thanked the US government and said the military assistance will go a long way towards sustaining what the Philippine government has gained in terms of the nation’s security and safety.
He also stressed the importance of the aircraft in the armed forces’ ground, air and naval operations, as well as in humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
Apart from military operations, Lorenzana said the surveillance planes will also be made available to other government branches.
“These aircraft will be working for the different departments of the government. It will be useful for the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to survey the mining areas and the forests, and for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to survey our maritime areas,” he said.
As the country’s “eye in the sky”, the Cessna-208B ISR aircraft will assist the PAF in upholding national security, he added.
“As head of the Defence department, I am confident that the Philippine Air Force will make effective use of these aircraft that will certainly bolster their capability readiness,” he said.
The two new aircraft, valued at PHP1.67 billion (US$33 million), were donated through the US National Defense Authorization Act Building Partnership Capacity Program.
The delivery is the latest donation from the United States government, which over the last five years has allocated more than PHP15 billion (US$297 million) of grant funding to provide the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) with up-to-date equipment and training.
“The equipment transfers, training, and continued bilateral exercises demonstrate the commitment of the United States to work with the Philippines in building capabilities towards eradicating global terror networks,” the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.
The PAF’s 300th Air Intelligence and Security Group, based at the Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, will operate the two new Cessna 208B aircraft.
The aircraft can operate for up to 912 nautical miles, has a maximum endurance of 5.5 hours, and service ceiling of 25,000 feet.
Equipped with advanced sensors, cameras and communications equipment, the assets are expected to significantly enhance the AFP’s ability to locate terrorist groups operating in the Philippines’ restive regions such as Mindanao.
Apart from the Sulu archipelago, which is notorious for kidnap-for-ransom activities carried out by the Abu Sayyaf militant group, Mindanao is also home to Marawi City, the site of the ongoing fighting between the Islamic State-inspired Maute group and local security forces.
Fresh from the handover of the two surveillance planes, the US embassy announced Saturday that the Joint United States Military Assistance Group has also delivered over 1,000 pieces of 2.75” rocket motors and rockets to the PAF, through the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), at Clark Air Base in Pampanga province.
Through the MLSA, the AFP is able to receive select munitions and equipment from US military stock in an accelerated process reserved for allies and close partners of the United States.
“The munitions and weapons deliveries will enhance the AFP’s counterterrorism capabilities, and directly support AFP members actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines, including Marawi,” the US embassy said.
Washington is also set to deliver 250 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 1,000 M203 grenade launchers to the Philippine Army through the security assistance program.
“The United States is a proud and steadfast ally of the Philippines and will continue to provide support to the AFP’s long-term modernization goals and counterterrorism needs,” the US embassy said.
Mindanao was placed under martial law on May 23 and will remain under the rule until Dec 31, 2017. Data released by the government on Friday showed that 471 terrorist gunmen, 114 state security forces and 45 civilians were killed in the Marawi clashes.
Less than 100 Maute and Abu Sayyaf members, said to be holding 300 hostages, continue to withstand the government offensive in Marawi.