OPE-P: Heightened US military intervention

Under Rodrigo Duterte’s rule, US military intervention in the Philippines deepened and expanded. Duterte himself paved the way to US’ greater control over the country, especially the AFP, when he imposed martial law in Mindanao on May 2017 to “crush the terrorist Maute group.”

Throughout his “war on terror” against the Maute group, the US commanded AFP operations inside Marawi City. The US used the siege in the city as a pretext to formally establishing the Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P) on September 1, 2017. It replaced Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) as the US’ “named operation” in the country. The OEF-P took the form of the 900-troop Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines located inside an AFP base in Zamboanga City from 2002 to 2015. Like the OEF-P, the OPE-P is under the US’ overseas contigency operations (OC), previously called the “global war on terror” which is funded by the Pentagon’s collosal budget.

On December 2017, Duterte declared the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) as “terrorist organizations” to further justify the existence of the OPE-P and expand its operations beyond Mindanao.

The US Defense Department Lead Inspector General’s report for January-May 2018 indicates that the OPE-P permanently bases 200-300 US troops in the country to supposedly advise, train and support Filipino troops. At this time, fighting in Marawi has already ended and armed skirmishes between the AFP and Moro groups have become less.

Within the current year, the OPE-P reported expenses of up to $32.4 million (P1.8 billion based on a foreign exchange of P55=$1). Most of the funds were spent on providing aerial surveillance support through unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV o drone) in AFP combat operations.

Though the OPE-P identified “ISIS-Philippines” as its main target, there have been numerous reports of drone surveillance in AFP-suspected NPA areas this year. Drones were sighted flying overhead before the 59 incidents of bombings and straffings recorded by the National Democratic Front-Mindanao since January 2018. Drones also often precede AFP focused military operations. For 2019, the OPE-P proposed a $108.2 million budget (P5.95 billion), triple its current operational budget.

The US also used the OPE-P to expand joint military exercises and position more troops in the country. Balikatan 34, which was participated by 8,000 troops (3,000 US and 5,000 Filipino) last May is among these exercises. This was followed by two more large exercises, the MTA Sama Sama on July and Kamandag 2 (previously Phiblex) this October. Live fire and amphibious landing, exercises which Duterte vowed to reduce if not outrightly ban, were part of the program.

These large-scale exercises are part of the US plan to maintain its presence on Philippine land and seas. Big and small exercises, conferences and other military activities led by US soldiers occur almost daily all over the country. From 258 in 2017, these activities rose to 261 in 2019 and will increase to 281 in 2019. More and larger trainings in various military fronts are conducted annually.

Alongside these exercises, US warships regularly sail through Philippine seas and the South China Sea in the guise of “freedom of navigation operations.” Some of these ships dock in the country for repairs, leave waste material and refuel, as well as for rest and recreation of US troops.

In general, the entry and exit of US troops and armaments in the country are becoming more frequent. In addition to the exercises, most of the troops enter the country aboard “visiting” warships. Since January, ten ships containing not less than 17,500 military troops, dozens of warplanes and other weapons have docked in Manila Bay, Subic Bay and other large seaports since January. The largest of these ships run on nuclear energy. The total number of troops is even bigger if it includes the ships which sailed in Philippine waters no less than 15 times for various reasons, including freedom of navigation operations. These include the USS Essex which was exposed to have been stationed in the Philippine Sea after one of its Marine trooper fell off the ship and disappeared. These US ships are accompanied by Japanese and Australian ships.

In addition to intervening in internal issues, the US also managed to push its strategic plan to maintain a more permanent and extensive base for their troops and war matériel under Duterte.

Using past military agreements, the US has already openly started construction of facilities for their troops inside their old military bases. In 2017, the US and AFP inaguarated a new building inside Basa Air Force Base in Pampanga supposedly for humanitarian purposes but is, in fact, built for stockpiling war materiel. The US and the AFP also announced the onset of contructing same facilities in Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation, Lumbia Air Base, Antonio Bautista Airbase and Benito Ebuen Air Base. This year, the construction of a military base started in residential areas in Marawi City after the US made the Duterte regime unearth and declare the city as a military reservation. This is one of the reasons why displaced residents are not allowed to enter the city, except for limited visits.

The US continues to unload airplanes, helicopters, ships, ammunitions, bombs and other war matériel in the country. Since January 2017, the US has been dumping its outdated armaments worth P5 billion under the guise of the AFP modernization plan. This will be augmented by more weapons, such as the anti-missile radar system which Duterte is set to “buy” from Israel and six F-16 jet fighters from the US supposedly to defend Philippine seas. The acquisition of such weapons supposedly for territorial defense is in line with the US defense plan against China’s rising military power.

US and Philippine military and state officials continue to enjoy strong and close ties. Every year, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command visits the country, and in turn, Defense Secretary Lorenzana meets with US State Department officials in Washington D.C. The Security Engagement Board, the committee which sets US activities in the country, also holds regular meetings.

Aside from military activities, US agencies also intervene in various aspects of Philippine national security including Philippine National Police programs, social media, and customs among many others.