The U.S. proposition to conduct unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) airstrikes against Islamic State-affiliated militants in the Philippines, if ultimately accepted by the host government led by President Rodrigo Duterte, will alter both the military and political character of the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign in Mindanao.
There is no question that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is straining from simultaneous battles with Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates, communist rebels, and various outlaw groups. The country is a formal military ally of the United States under a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Filipino nationalists are deeply sensitive to foreign soldiers on their soil, although these are not strictly prohibited by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Successive Filipino presidents have had to manage public opinion carefully when cooperating with the United States on security matters. Duterte’s popularity does not exempt him from the same basic dilemma.
Unnamed Pentagon officials intimated their thinking to NBC’s national security reporter in Washington DC less than 12 hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warm audience at the presidential palace in Manila. The Philippine broadsheets, awash with the pageantry of the ASEAN Regional Forum and past press time, did not cover it the next morning.
Philippine online coverage later in the day carried official caveats that no such agreement was in place, but neither the defense secretary nor the AFP chief of staff rejected the idea outright. Their equivocation reflects a basic uncertainty about the merits as well as a desire to gauge public reaction.
At this point in the battle to retake Marawi City on Mindanao Island, the Duterte administration has already accepted U.S. small arms, battlefield advisers, and overflights by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft. Political opposition to this has so far been muted by the shock of seeing a city captured by ISIS and prospect of the country sliding into chaos.
U.S. UCAV deployment will redraw perceptions just as it promises to deliver new capabilities to the AFP. Strategically, it becomes even easier for ISIS to frame the Philippines as a new front against the United States. There is no shortage of latent anti-outsider sentiment in Mindanao.
Tactically, insurgents will seek to maximize perceptions of danger and civilian casualties from overhead. Clerics may question the morality of inflicting death by remote control. And in the ruthless arena of Philippine elite competition, both old resentments and the latest UCAV strikes may become weapons.
Against this, Duterte’s government must balance potential advantages. As pointed out earlier in The Diplomat, UCAVs are unlikely to be strategically decisive in urban counterinsurgency. Their main utility will be in the rural and mountain settings to which most insurgents will return after the bombing finally stops in Marawi.
Past AFP operations have evidenced a capability to track the movements of both groups and particular individuals of interest. However, the time needed to deploy ground forces often meant such information became stale. Insurgents have also learned to track the AFP’s platoons and helicopters, and know generally how often they must move.
With a population density of about 240 persons per square kilometer, Mindanao is similar to the U.S. state of Maryland (the fifth densest). Most infantry operations thus entail advance coordination with local power centers, including well-armed but non-ISIS groups who are partners in a critical ongoing peace process. This makes surprise all but impossible to achieve.
The United States clearly hopes to employ its 15 years of experience with a much shorter kill chain. A loitering UCAV could be quickly tasked at targets identified by it or other assets. To take one example UCAV, the MQ-1 Predator’s 14-hour loiter, more than double that of the AFP’s manned OV-10 aircraft, means that just one pair can provide round-the-clock coverage within a certain radius.
The challenge will be killing only legitimate targets. The highest value targets will be employing tactics honed elsewhere, as they have to the AFP’s dismay in Marawi. These may include tactics specifically intended to undermine the political legitimacy of UCAVs and of U.S. involvement in general.
Another issue is the security of UCAV bases. U.S. personnel, facilities, and aircraft will be priority targets for ISIS. Secondary targets will be the power lines and other support.
A final issue is whether UCAV missions will be limited to ISIS-affiliated fighters only. Fighting with the New People’s Army (NPA) has intensified recently, and includes clashes on Luzon, where Manila is located, and other islands.
The Duterte government can probably afford to limit any UCAVs to Mindanao. But the question it must be weighing carefully is whether it can afford to decline the United States altogether, caught as it is between stalemate in Marawi, escalation from ISIS, budgetary limits, and the passions of its own people. Duterte did not have to swallow his pride this week, because he already did so in July. Thus, when welcoming the emissary from Donald Trump, it was perhaps with resigned irony that he called himself “your humble friend in Southeast Asia.”
Blanchard E. Neuman is the pseudonym of a Philippine-based analyst of military affairs.