Military officers worry about loss of US surveillance aid
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY – Field-based officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has expressed worry over the possible cut in the United States government’s assistance for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities should President Duterte proceed with terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
The officers, who asked not to be named, said US support is crucial in running after Islamic State (IS)-linked militants.
Without US support, one officer said, it would be like “fighting the militants with blurry eyes or a hazy vision.”
“Some of our operations will be affected,” the officer further said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a recent visit here, has said the country stands to lose US support for ISR operations without the VFA.
Lorenzana said the support is made possible through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which was inked in 2014. It allows the United States to rotate troops into the country for extended stays, and to build and operate facilities on AFP bases.
“I think EDCA will become useless if there is no more VFA. Who will man these bases,” said Lorenzana, referring to the US military facilities that’s providing the intelligence and surveillance support, one of which is in Zamboanga City.
Along with the Zamboanga US facility, Lorenzana said the surveillance flights provided by Dyne Corporation, a service provider of the US Department of Defense, will also stop its operations in Southern Philippines.
Another military officer has told the Inquirer the Zamboanga facility was instrumental in the recent successful operation that led to the killing of a local IS affiliate in Lanao del Sur.
“We have to look elsewhere for that kind of support soon,” said Lorenzana, who is vice chair of the body overseeing implementation of the VFA on the Philippine side.
In Zamboanga City, Lt. General Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, said the US support “complements our existing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.”
Sobejana attributed the US support to the successful rescue of the British-Filipino couple who was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in Zamboanga del Sur last year, and the three Indonesian fishers who were snatched, also last year, in waters off Sabah, Malaysia.
These kidnap victims were brought to Sulu where they were also rescued.
Sobejana also acknowledged the role of US surveillance support in tracking Lanao IS affiliate Jarir Usman who was killed in an armed encounter with government troops in Balindong town last Jan. 24.
According to a military officer, the troops were fed information about Usman’s whereabouts from the US surveillance facility in Zamboanga City, coursed through the AFP’s chain of command.
Once the defense deals are terminated, the temporary facility operated by U.S. forces in southern Zamboanga City will also shut down, Lorenzana said.
“That DyneCorp [surveillance] will have to go, too, because it is attached to the U.S. Department of Defense,” Lorenzana added.
Lorenzana said the Philippine military would then have to build its own aerial surveillance capability.
Surveillance aircraft operated by DyneCorp helped government troops defeat in 2017 IS militants who laid siege on Marawi City.
Apart from aiding the AFP in war-fighting, some other AFP officers pointed to logistical assistance from the US military towards rescue and relief operations in times of disasters like after typhoons Sendong, Pablo and Yolanda.
But the Philippine National Police (PNP) said the abrogation of the VFA will not impact the agency.
“We are not totally affected and we are not totally dependent from the United States,” PNP spokesman Brigadier General Bernard Banac has said.
Some units of the PNP, like the Special Action Force, receive specialized training from US forces.
“We have other partners in the region like Japan and Korea, including Interpol. The SAF gets some trainings, but we have many options in the region,” Banac said.
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