A series of unfortunate mishaps in the past two weeks has afflicted United States military forces stationed in the Philippines.
On January 6th, a BQM-74E target drone that appeared to be of American origin was found floating in the waters off Masbate, an island province in the central Philippines. Although the U.S. was known to be flying reconnaissance drones to assist Filipino forces, Washington is not authorized to conduct aerial strikes with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Another incident occurred on January 17th, when the USS Guardian minesweeper ran aground on the South Atoll of the Tubbataha Reef, a no-sail zone and UN marine protected habitat in the Sulu Sea in the southern Philippines.
U.S. officials in Manila immediately moved to contain both controversies. In the case of the fallen drone in Masbate, the U.S. Embassy in Manila denied the drone was launched from Philippines airspace and insisted instead that it had been used in a naval exercise in Guam months earlier and ocean currents carried it into Filipino waters.
“The unarmed target drone that washed ashore off the coast of Masbate Island is an expended BQM-74E Aerial Target drone … launched from the USS Chafee during exercise Valiant Shield 2012 on Sept. 19, 2012, off the coast of Guam,” an embassy spokesperson said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs later backed this sequencing of events.
As for the grounded navy ship, the U.S. Pacific Fleet explained that the ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay and was en route to Indonesia and Timor Leste to participate in a training exercise when the accident occurred. Representatives of the fleet initially blamed faulty mapping data for the grounding, and vowed to further probe the incident.
“While the erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions. It is critical that the U.S. Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts surrounding the Guardian grounding,” said U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Capt. Darryn James.
Between the mysterious small drone and the navy ship, which is still stuck in the pristine coral reefs of Tubbataha, the latter is clearly a bigger problem for the U.S. military. Criticisms of the drone incident have been mainly limited to anti-American activists and nationalists. With regards to the ship incident, however, these groups have been joined by environmentalists, local politicians, and concerned citizens in condemning the irreparable damage caused by the USS Guardian to the marine resources in the Tubbataha Reef.
According to the initial assessment made by the Philippine government, the USS Guardian damaged 1,000 square meters of the marine park. Moreover, the destruction to marine life in the area may continue to worsen as the recovery operation is expected to take two weeks. The U.S. Navy and Philippine Coast Guard must first siphon off all 56,000 liters (15,000 gallons) of fuel from the ship to avoid any spills— a process that has been delayed by rough waters— and then the vessel will be lifted from the area.
The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) has vowed to file charges against the USS Guardian for unauthorized entry and damage to the reef. Personnel of the TPAMB alleged that the USS Guardian was in “battle position” when Filipino marine rangers tried to approach the ship to assess the situation.
“It willfully trespassed. It wasn't lost. It was the voyage of an intruder,” said Palawan province congressman Antonio Alvarez. “It boggles the mind on how a state-of-the-art ship with satellite-aided navigation and provided with the latest maps is unable to find its way at sea?”
The drone and minesweeper incidents would obviously provide additional ammunition to groups and individuals who are critical of the expanded presence of U.S. military forces in the country. The U.S. lost access to Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base soon after the Cold War ended but it conducts regular joint exercises with the Philippine military in many parts of the country.
In the past, communist and Muslim separatist rebels have accused the Philippine government of allowing U.S. troops to participate in actual combat operations. They have seized on the drone sighting in Masbate to bolster their case.
Furthermore, it was exposed last year that toxic waste from U.S. naval ships was dumped into Subic Bay. This scandal and the recent Tubbataha incident have infuriated environmental groups who claim that the presence of U.S. military forces in the Philippines is a threat to the country’s already fragile ecosystem.
Philippine government officials may be unconcerned with what happened in Masbate and Tubbataha, but not all Filipinos share this attitude.
An earlier version of this article listed the amount of fuel in the USS Guardian as 6,000 liters. The correct number is 56,000 liters.