Deadly Reaper drones operating from Phl airbase

Now operating from Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga are MQ-9A Reaper drones from the United States military. Employed primarily by the US Marine Corps for collecting military intelligence, the unmanned aircraft are used secondarily (but even more troublingly) to strike against “dynamic execution targets.”

The drones can stay in the air up to 50,000 feet above the earth’s surface, and operate for 27-34 hours. Currently they are used by the US Air Force, US Homeland Security, the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and by the air forces of Britain, France, Italy and Spain.

The Marcos Jr. administration supposedly requested the drones’ deployment to boost the military intelligence sharing efforts between the US Indo-Pacific Command and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The MQ-9As carry out reconnaissance and surveillance operations in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.

This news, which has not been reported in the Philippine media, was disclosed last Monday by the NI News, the independent non-profit news service of the US Naval Institute (covering activities of the US Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and related services). It said the news was confirmed last week by the I Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF), the largest of three such formations of the USMC-Pacific forces.

Before this, no clear-cut information had been made available publicly, by either the US or Philippine authorities, regarding the status of the US Army’s “landmark deployment” in northern Luzon of its newest ground-based Typhon mid-range capability (MRC) missile system during the 39th Balikatan joint military exercise carried out from April 22 to May 10, 2024.

Touted as capable of firing Tomahawk and SM-6 missiles that can reach as far as China, the Typhon was last shown located in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, right on the Marcos family homeground. At the time, the military authorities of both countries said the definite destination of the Typhon system had not yet been decided upon.

China has made known its strong opposition to the missile system’s deployment here, so we may expect more protestations once it learns about the MQ-9A Reaper deployment and operations from Basa Air Base.

The drones are “temporarily” stationed in the Philippines because the country’s 1987 Constitution bans the permanent basing of foreign troops and facilities here, NI News noted, but their deployment on a “rotational basis” is permitted under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

It turns out, however, that the MQ-9A deployment actually began sometime in March, according to a news release that month by the US Pacific Air Force (PACAF).

As quoted by NI News, the news release said a PACAF Agile Combat Employment mission to Basa Air Base secured from the latter “vital logistical support for permanent (USMC) MQ-9A deployment” within the base. Basa Air Base has been designated as one of the first five Philippine bases where the US could set up facilities with corresponding US military and non-military personnel, station military equipment and store war materiel for its exclusive use, as allowed by the EDCA.

The PACAF news release also described the missions already undertaken by the MQ-9A Reaper drones during their deployment. These included five sorties over the South China Sea to support “critical maritime domain awareness” and “overwatch” of the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), which was described as “a landmark symbol of the Philippines’ stand against China’s territorial ambitions in the region.”

Curiously, after NI News had inquired from the USMC about the earlier deployment, in March, the PACAF news release was removed from a US Defense Department website.

In its response to NI News queries, IMEF did not specify how many MQ-9A Reapers it was temporarily stationing at Basa Air Base. Nor did IMEF detail the length of time of the rotational deployment.

NI News pointed out that it wasn’t the first time US drones have been deployed into the Philippines to support the country’s “struggle” in the SCS/WPS. It cited the following instances:

• Last year, a US Army MQ-IC Grey Eagle operating from the Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga was spotted flying over a Philippine resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as the Philippine Marine outpost in Ayungin Shoal.

• American drones stationed at Edwin Andrews AB had “routinely operated in and around the Philippines” during their “counter-terrorism” mission under Operation Enduring Freedom (launched by the George Bush II administration’s “war on terror” in the early 2000s) and the subsequent Operation Pacific Eagle.

• MQ-9As also supported the mock sinking of an “enemy” military vessel off the Palawan coast during the Balikatan exercises last month, purportedly to test the maritime strike capabilities of the US and Philippine forces.

Note that the mock military-vessel sinking exercise was launched from Laoag, where, as earlier pointed out, the Typhon missile system was last displayed.

The trend with which the US military had been first displaying – and of late “deploying” – its modern lethal weapons in the Philippines definitely adds to the heightening tension between the US and China, the prime contenders for hegemonic dominance in the Asia/Indo-Pacific region.

China sees the American moves as gradually building up a network of its own military bases in the Philippines for potential launching pads of an attack on the China mainland, either over the Taiwan independence issue or the maritime disputes in the SCS/WPS where American officials keep talking about the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty. Provocative was Marcos Jr.’s off-hand remark recently that, if a Filipino dies during China’s harassment of Philippine vessels bringing food and supplies to the soldiers manning the outpost in Ayungin Shoal, the MDT may be invoked in calling for stepped-up US involvement in the conflict.

It’s time the Marcos Jr. administration reassessed the situation, in light of his clear-cut stance, enunciated in his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, to uphold the primacy of peaceful resolution of geopolitical conflicts through dialogue and not the use of force.

Published in Philippine Star
June 8, 2024

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