As Philippine security forces continue to fight the Maute group rebels, aligned with ISIS, for control of the city of Marawi in the southern part of the country, the United States is reportedly considering launching its own air strikes against the militants.
This would represent a significant escalation in U.S. involvement in the emerging conflict and a shift in the policy of the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been an outspoken critic of American military intervention in the past.
On Aug. 7, 2017, NBC News, citing two unnamed defense officials, said that the U.S. military was considering launching aerial attacks on the Maute fighters as early as the following week as part of what would be an official, named military operation.
American forces have already been providing intelligence and other advisory support to their counterparts in and around Marawi at least since June 2017.
“We’re providing them some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like most people have ever had to deal with,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the country for a scheduled visit, said the same day at a press conference.
“I see no conflict, no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation.”
Air strikes have already been a very visible component of the Philippines government operations in Marawi. However, as The War Zone has noted, the country’s Air Force has very limited capabilities when it comes to this kind of complex urban warfare, relying on a mix of aging OV-10M Bronco andlight attackers, newer FA-50PH light jet fighters, and light gunship helicopters.
The Philippines has been looking into buying fixed-wing gunships based on turboprop conversions of the venerable C-47 transport, as well as new A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, but has yet to finalize any deals.
The United States did recently help deliver a small number of Cessna C-208B Caravan aircraft with surveillance equipment, as well as unspecified small unmanned aircraft, according to Tillerson.
In the end, most, if not all of these aerial attacks have involved “dumb” munitions, which can be dangerous to friend and foe alike. There was a report of at least one potential friendly fire incident on May 31, 2017.
So, it’s not surprising that authorities in the Philippines may be interested in bringing in American air power. U.S. planes, either manned or unmanned, would expand the total number of aircraft available for air strikes, as well as add precision guided munitions to the equation for more accurate attacks.
The NBC News story did not say what aircraft the U.S. military was considering deploying, but the immediate assumption was that American commanders would employ either U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper or U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, all of which are able to carry a variety of guided bombs and missiles.
The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command has already proven it can establish drone surveillance operations virtually anywhere in a matter of weeks.
Setting up a mission can take even less time if there is an improved air base or airport that American crews can make use of instead of needing to build its own facilities.
For more than a decade, a U.S. special operations task force, known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), made use of a number of Philippine bases, including Edwin Andrews Air Base situated less than 200 miles southwest of Marawi, for aerial surveillance and other operations.
The militants executed Christians, filming themselves shooting them in the head.
Should the U.S. help the Philippines in its fight against ISIS?
“Many are convinced the terrorist attack in Marawi was for the purpose of clearing the path for ISIS to gain a foothold in Asia and turn Mindanao into its new wilayat or province,” says analyst Babe. G. Romualdez writing in The Philippine Star.
Romualdez says that the Mutual Defense Treaty (signed with the U.S. in 1951) does not allow for U.S. boots on the ground, unless the Philippines is invaded by another country.
The real story, he counters, is that if air strikes occur, they will be conducted by drones and by Filipinos themselves who have been trained to operate them by U.S. personnel.
Those drones were donated to the Philippines earlier this year. Similarly, Singapore also offered drones for this purpose and Australia sent aircraft to conduct surveillance on the terror group for the Philippines.
All these countries have a vested interest in not allowing ISIS to become entrenched in the Philippines and, as such, becoming the next destination of ISIS militants fleeing from the routing they are taking in the Middle East.
The U.S. views the Philippines as a crucial linchpin to oppose Chinese aggression in the East China Sea and maintain important trade passages in the South China Sea.
China maintains nuclear-armed submarines, but to reach the continental United States, they must first transverse the South China Sea.
A significant presence of ISIS in the Philippines would complicate the already delicate balance maintained in the Western Pacific.
“A loss of the Philippines would be particularly damaging at a time when China is acting with increasing assertiveness and rapidly modernizing its military,” asserts Michael Mazza, a foreign and defense policy studies research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), speaking to The Daily Caller.
Mazza explained the Philippines is part of “America’s forward defense strategy, which it has employed since the end of World War II to protect the homeland, and American efforts to uphold peace and defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”
Those who argue against the U.S. drone-striking the remaining ISIS terrorists in Marawi to ferret them out of their hiding places, maintain this counter-terror strategy doesn’t work. Moreover, with it comes serious downsides.
Writing in The Washington Post, Erik Goepner, who was a military commander in Afghanistan and Iraq and an associate professor at George Mason University, maintains drone striking as a strategy simply doesn’t work, as witnessed by the increase in terror in areas already targeted by the U.S.
Rather, he says, it merely serves as a recruiting tool for extremist groups and turns local populations against the U.S. because of the inevitable mistakes that occur resulting in the deaths of innocents.
Further, Goepner and others maintain it is immoral to work with corrupt regimes, such as the current administration in the Philippines run by Rodrigo Duterte. Putting such weapons in the hands of a ruler with a known history of extrajudicial killings increases the possibility they will be used not for their intended purpose but by Duterte against his political enemies.
Goepner points out that the Philippines has a 100-year-plus history of local insurgencies and ISIS is a reflection of this reality as opposed to an indication of a more sinister global strategy.