Philippine Observers: Ending Pact with US Would Weaken Surveillance of IS-linked Militants

Froilan Gallardo
Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
200203-PH-US-military-1000.jpg American soldiers participate in a training exercise in General Santos city, southern Philippines, July 2012.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Jarir Usman and five other Islamic State-allied Filipino militants thought they had eluded government troops who were on their trail, but a U.S. surveillance plane high overhead was tracking their movements through the southern Philippine jungle.

The Beachcraft 200T, operated by DynCorp, a private contractor of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), was sending the information to an American military forward base in Zamboanga City, about 1,329 km (830 miles south of Manila). The coordinates were then relayed to the intelligence unit of the Philippine military’s regional command, which passed the information on to patrolling troops, who immediately set up an ambush.

Usman, a 38-year-old former student at Mindanao State University, was dead before night fell. Philippine and U.S. military officers hailed the operation that took place last month as a success, although his five comrades managed to escape in different directions, according to an account of Usman’s killing told to BenarNews by a senior Philippine officer.

That kind of tactical advantage provided with help from a U.S. spy plane would be weakened if President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration implement a threat to terminate Manila’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its defense ally for more almost seven decades, according to the officer and others who spoke to BenarNews on condition of anonymity.

Ending surveillance provided by the DynCorp aircraft would amount to a loss of about 20 percent of the Philippine army’s intelligence capability against the militants, said the officers who were not authorized to talk to media about the circumstances around Usman’s killing.

It would be “like fighting the militants with blurry eyes or hazy vision,” one officer said. “Some of our operations will be affected.”

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana indicated that surveillance assistance provided to the Philippines by DynCorp would go by the wayside with the move to end the VFA pact with the United States.

“We have to look elsewhere for that kind of support soon,” Lorenzana told officers and troops while visiting a military camp in southern Cagayan de Oro city. “VFA will be terminated.”

The agreement, a bilateral pact that serves as the legal cover for large-scale military cooperation by the two allies, was signed in 1999, years after Manila ended a lease agreement on two U.S. bases in the Southeast Asian nation after almost half a century.

In Washington, DoD officials referred questions about the Philippine threat to terminate the treaty to the U.S. State Department, where officials on Monday did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BenarNews.

President Duterte first threatened to scrap the VFA more than a week ago, after Washington cancelled the visa for his ex-police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, who is now a senator.

Dela Rosa told reporters that a letter he received recently from the U.S. Embassy in Manila did not state a reason for the cancelation of his visa, which was supposed to expire in 2022. Dela Rosa was the chief enforcer of Duterte’s drug war, which has left thousands of suspects dead during the past three years.

Lorenzana, who has been in consultations with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that the VFA would be scrapped within 180 days upon Washington’s receipt of a notice of termination.

But the Philippine government had not yet delivered an official termination notice, he said.

“VFA is over, although there is no formal announcement yet,” Lorenzana said.

Manila was also studying the effects of the VFA termination in comparison with other U.S.-Philippines military agreements, such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, Lorenzana said.

Signed in Manila on April 28, 2014, the EDCA allows the United States to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays and allows the United States to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases.

“I think EDCA will become useless if there is no more VFA. Who will man these bases?” Lorenzana said.

Once the defense deals are terminated, the temporary facility operated by U.S. forces in southern Zamboanga City will also shut down, he said.

“That DynCorp [surveillance] will have to go, too, because it is attached to the U.S. Department of Defense,” Lorenzana said.

Lorenzana said the Philippine military would then have to build its own aerial surveillance capability.

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded $135 million to DynCorp in July 11, 2016 to provide helicopters and surveillance aircraft to American troops in the Philippines.

Surveillance aircraft operated by DynCorp helped Philippine troops defeat militants linked with Islamic State (IS), who took over the southern city of Marawi in 2017.

Aerial intelligence allowed the Philippine Air Force to pound the extremists with near-daily bombing runs and end the siege. The five-month battle between government forces and pro-IS fighters left Marawi in ruins and killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.

Richel V. Umel in Iligan city, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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