The Philippine Air Force (PAF) has denied that it used US-satellite guided missiles or smart bombs in an operation against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Sulu last month. It was in reaction to an Associated Press (AP) report claiming that US smart bombs were used in the February 2 air raid that allegedly killed an ASG commander and two top Southeast Asian terrorists along with 12 others. AP claimed that its report was confirmed by four senior Philippine security officials.
Earlier, another article in the Asia Times Online said that the Sulu operation used unmanned aerial assault craft or drones provided by the US. (See illustration below) The article claimed that it was the first known use of US drones in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) counter-terrorism operations. No less than President Benigno Aquino III admitted that US drones are circling over the country but supposedly only for reconnaissance. The AP report also said that US drones were used but only provided thermal imaging of the aftermath of the air attack. But the clandestine nature of drone missions leaves us nothing to rely on but the assurance by the rabidly pro-US Aquino. And his assurance does not answer the basic question – if US drones can fly over the country secretly from locations we do not know, what prevents them from launching attacks on Philippine soil?
The official account of the air raid on the ASG lair claims that the military used “smart pilots” and not smart bombs. A PAF commander based in Zamboanga City appealed to skeptics to “please credit our Air Force”. OV-10s, the aircraft used in the attack, are too old to handle guided missiles, he said, while admitting that the pilots were trained by US forces.
Thus, whether drones, guided missiles, or simply smart pilots were the key, what is clear is that the US played a crucial role in the Sulu operation. However, the use of drones and smart bombs, which are not totally unfounded allegations, steps up US military intervention in the Philippines, raising anew serious concerns on national sovereignty and possible escalation of US atrocities against innocent Filipino civilians.
Unmanned aerial vehicles
Many do not buy the official PAF account of the Sulu air strike. One of them is a former PAF pilot, Captain Joenel Pogoy. Pogoy, detained for two years after exposing corruption in the air force, maintains that it is unbelievable that OV-10s were used in carrying out the attack in Sulu. Without possible enemy fire, the minimum altitude of an OV-10 should not be below 500 feet above ground level (AGL), Pogoy explained. But if there is an expected enemy attack, it should fly at least 1,000 AGL. He added that OV-10s should fly higher during night operation because of terrain height variation. Pogoy seriously doubts that OV-10s – even if manned by smart pilots as claimed by PAF – could achieve pinpoint accuracy in a mission conducted at 3 AM in a Sulu jungle. The only logical explanation is that drones were used, Pogoy said.
That the PAF could have employed drones from the US in the Sulu operation, which reportedly killed Umbra Jumdail or “Doc Abu” (an ASG commander), Singaporean Muhamda Ali (a member of Jemaah Islamiyah or JI), and Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir (a top JI leader and one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists) is not farfetched. The US has long been using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the region, including the Philippines. In fact, a number of US drones has reportedly crashed or shot down in Mindanao including in Zamboanga (2002), Sulu (2006 and 2007), and Maguindanao (2008).
The current US drone program, under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), started immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Previously used for simple intelligence gathering, the drones were armed and used for assassination of targeted individual terrorist leaders, even including those outside official war zones, thus further inflaming the fundamental question of US intervention and sovereignty issues. It was first used in February 2002 in the former mujaheeden base Zhawar Kili in Afghanistan against a “tall man” that CIA operatives thought was Osama bin Laden. It turned out that the target was an impoverished Afghan scavenging for scrap metal, according to journalists who probed the incident. He was killed with two others that the CIA, despite the later admission that the tall man was not bin Laden, insisted were “legitimate” targets. (Read brief history of US drone program here)
Under the Obama administration, it has been noted that the use of drones in America’s counterterrorism campaign has greatly intensified. President Barack Obama has not only publicly recognized US drone strikes but has even defended them saying that a “pinpoint strike” is “less intrusive” of other countries’ sovereignty than other military ways to target al Qaeda. (Watch video below).
Was the use of US drones to eliminate al Qaeda-linked terrorists basing in Sulu “less intrusive” of Philippine sovereignty? Not for countries like Pakistan, which is demanding that US drones be removed from their country; and Iran, which captured a US drone flying over their airspace calling it an invasion and dangerous act.
Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, deploys a missile-bearing drone about once every four days while former President George Bush, who initiated the discredited US global war on terror, deploys a drone only once every 47 days, according to one estimate. The US today is also said to be spending more than nine times on drones than when the CIA first used attack drones under the war on terror in 2002.
“isn’t perfect, never is”
Worse, the use of remote-controlled aircraft does not only seriously impinge on other countries’ national sovereignty. Their increased use under Obama has also resulted in a significant number of civilians killed. Pakistan is a case in point. According to data culled by non-profit think tank New America Foundation, there were only 42 US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2008. When Obama took over in 2009, the number went up to 53, and more than doubled to 118 in 2010. Last year, there were 70 reported US drone strikes in Pakistan, and 11 so far this year (as of March 13, 2012). The New America said that based on their account, some 17% or almost two out of every 10 people killed by US drones were neither leaders nor members of al Qaeda, Taliban, or any terrorist group. From 2004 to 2012, it has monitored 290 reported drone strikes that killed as much as 2,764 people, of which almost 470 were civilians. One example is the case of a 12-year old Pakistani boy who was killed in a drone attack on Oct. 31, 2011 as exposed by UK-based lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, a campaigner against the use of drones. The child victim had volunteered to help Smith by taking photos of people killed by US drones. In Yemen, an Al Jazeera report said that drone attacks have become more frequent than in Pakistan, killing up to 500 people many of whom were civilians.
The same danger is true with so-called smart bombs, which are not as smart as claimed. For instance, during the February 2001 air attacks on Iraq launched by the US and Britain, Pentagon admitted that most of the smart bombs missed their targets. A separate account said that the bombs missed their targets by as much as 100 meters. US defense officials gave the bombs an accuracy of “about a B minus or a C plus”. In the Kosovo War, it turned out that the accuracy of the smart bombs used by British forces was only 40 percent. In another incident, US smart bombs “accidentally” hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. Former Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley described air strikes using smart bombs this way: “It isn’t perfect. It never is…” Unfortunately for the population where these bombs are being dropped, even the slightest miscalculation could prove massively fatal.
Projecting US power
Drones, together with special operations troops, are expected to play an increasingly more prominent role in US global defense strategy. Facing its worst economic crisis since the 1930s Great Depression, the US has been forced to cut back on its defense spending to address its burgeoning debt and budget deficit. Consequently, it has been looking for more cost-effective ways – in the economic as well as political sense - to continually project US military might globally.
In its budget request for fiscal year 2013, the US Defense department is calling for a 30% increase in its fleet of armed drones in the coming years, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Quoting Defense officials, the WSJ said that from the current 61 drone combat patrols around the clock, with up to four drones in each patrol, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta intends to “operate 65 combat air patrols constantly with the ability to temporarily surge to 85 combat air patrols.” US defense officials are also planning to deploy more special operations teams at a growing number of “lily pads” or forward operating bases (FOBs). The US plans to increase special forces by 10%, from 63,750 this year to 70,000 by 2015. (See illustration below)
The increased use of secretive combat drones and special forces will be felt in the Philippines and the rest of the Asia Pacific, which the US has given a more prominent role in its current defense strategy that has special attention on China. (Read document here and analysis here) Negotiations are ongoing between Philippine and US defense and foreign affairs officials to expand US military presence here including the deployment of more special forces, holding more and bigger military exercises, and stationing of US Navy ships. Meanwhile, the largest Balikatan war games yet have been scheduled from April 16 to 27, involving 4,500 personnel from the US Pacific Command. And of course, the admission by Aquino that deadly US drones have been regularly flying over Philippine airspace from undisclosed destinations. Aside from the Philippines, Australia has also already committed to host up to 2,500 US Marines in Darwin in Northern Australia as well as possibly allowing the basing of long-range US drones on Cocos Islands, atolls in the Indian Ocean off northwest Australia.
The idea of people in supposedly sovereign countries being killed at a touch of a button by unaccountable and anonymous CIA operatives from some remote area pushes the cold-bloodedness of US intervention to unprecedented heights.
The use of lethal military technology from the US and the increased presence of their troops in the Philippines seriously violate our sovereignty as a country while further inflaming our internal conflict and unnecessarily escalating our tension with China. The Aquino administration, behind the pretext of improving our national security and protecting the country’s territorial integrity, is putting the Filipino people in a great and unimaginable danger. #