At Ground Level | ‘Most lethal’ US drones deployed in Balikatan 2023

Yesterday, the US and Philippine military forces formally ended their 18-day joint war games under the 38th version of the Balikatan. The various exercises, held in Northern and Central Luzon, involved more than 17,000 troops and live-firing of a variety of US modern weapons systems.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. watched the highlighting event on Wednesday: the sinking of a Philippine Navy decommissioned corvette – representing an “enemy” ship intruding into the West Philippine Sea – by joint inland/coastal artillery firing and airstrike. He arrived at the observation deck in San Antonio, Zambales aboard a US truck equipped with the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the principal weapon used in the ship-sinking drill.

The drill suggested, in real-time, either a defensive or offensive action that could start a shooting war. Although both sides take pains to point out that the joint military exercises are “not directed at a particular country,” the US has been consistent in projecting a potential armed conflict with China.

For instance, just last Wednesday, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks spoke to reporters about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine teaching the US valuable lessons for a potential conflict with China.

While continuing to arm Ukraine, Hicks said, America’s primary focus will remain on competition with China in the Asia-Pacific region. “We’re not trying to weigh between two theaters. We have a clear strategy that’s focused on China,” she said.

“Our focus is making sure that the (China) leadership wakes up every day and says today is not the day to undertake aggression that threatens US interests,” she added, emphasizing, “That’s our focus today, in 2027 and in 2035 and 2045.”

Marcos Jr. gave no statement on the event. Both the US and Philippine exercise directors, however, lauded the success of Balikatan 2023.

“This training increased the exercise’s realism and complexity, a key priority shared between the [AFP] and the US military,” declared Lt. Gen. William Jurney, US Marine Corps Forces Pacific commander. “Together we are strengthening our capabilities in full-spectrum military operations across all domains.”

Maj. Gen. Martine Licudine, commander of the AFP’s Education, Training and Doctrine Command, in turn said: “This event enhanced the interoperability of the Philippine and US forces in conducting combined joint operations utilizing both countries’ army, navy and air force assets in maritime security and territorial defense. So far, I believe we have achieved all the exercise goals of the Balikatan.”

Note the difference in the ranks of the two exercise directors. The American general has three stars, his Filipino counterpart, two stars. This difference was reflected in each side’s number of participating troops: more than two-thirds American, less than one-third Filipino. Between the two “strategic allies” who benefits more from Balikatan?

An important component of the US participation – also highly relevant to the use of the controversial EDCA sites – has been glossed over in Philippine media coverage of Balikatan: It featured the deployment of MQ-9 Reapers, among the most lethal unarmed aircraft/drones in the American arsenal.

Two of these drones – the same type that had “carried out numerous strikes in combat zones over the past 16 years” – flew on intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance missions during the various joint military exercises.

During the “enemy-ship” sinking drill, the Reapers provided “full-motion video” to commanders on the ground.

These facts were reported from Subic Bay by Stars and Stripes, the daily US military newspaper, on April 24 with the headline: “American Reaper drones debut over Philippine land and sea during Balikatan exercise.”

Citing interviews with US military officials and personnel knowledgeable about the drones, the report further provided the following information:

• The drones, from the California Guards’ 163rd Attack Wing, are equipped with nose cameras and multi-spectrum targeting systems. Along with personnel and support equipment, the Reapers were flown to the country on C-17 Globemaster III transports from West Virginia, New York and North Carolina Guard units.

• Capable of carrying 3,000 pounds of ordnance, the Reapers first engaged in combat missions in Afghanistan in 2007, then in Iraq the following year. Thereafter they were deployed in other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

• In recent years, the US Air Force has used the drones in maritime military activities. Besides providing commanders with full-motion video of the sea – as they did during the ship-sinking drill in the West Philippine Sea mentioned earlier – they have undertaken “overseas close-air support, search and rescue, maritime interdiction, strike coordination and reconnaissance and surveillance.”

• The Reaper’s capabilities could come in handy in a place such as the South China Sea. “We are just as capable at sea without changing our weapons in any way,” said a ranking US Air Force officer.

• Eight Reapers are on a year-long deployment in an air base in Japan.

• The two Reapers were positioned in the former US naval base station at Cubi Point, Subic Bay, to be photographed by reporters, while one US air force official described their operational capabilities.

Specifically, he pointed out, the Reapers sent here were equipped with new software that “allows them to take off, fly and land at the push of a button with no air crew…” They can operate in environments with minimal aircrew and equipment, the official said, noting that their Philippine mission was an example of “agile combat employment.”

Stars and Stripes explained: “Agile combat employment is the ability to move aircraft rapidly to a network of smaller airfields to avoid being targeted by missiles in the event of war. US forces have been honing these skills across the Western Pacific.”

Doesn’t this description evoke a vision of a network of EDCA sites with mini-runways in strategic locations in the Philippines? Could these safely shelter and enable the Reapers to avoid being targeted by missiles?

I referred this question to Dr. Roland Simbulan, a UP professor who has extensively studied and written about US bases and military activities in the country and got a succinct reply. The EDCA sites, he predicts, “are sitting ducks.”

Published in Philippine Star
April 29, 2023

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