13 August 2013

US, Philippines Lay Groundwork for Subic Visits

WASHINGTON — Greater access to Philippine facilities for the US military will be part of the upcoming negotiations between Manila and Washington on establishing a framework agreement that would be “nested” under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Philippine and US defense officials here said.

Both indicated there would be no changes to the MDT, no permanent US military bases, and, despite media speculation, no basing of US Air Force F-22 fighters or B-2 bombers.

The Philippines is shifting from internal security requirements related to the threat from terrorism to maritime security concerns in the South China Sea, and “our treaty agreement needs [to be] updated,” a US defense source said.

What the “access agreement” will look like has yet to be established. But one thing is certain — it will be rotational, the US defense source said. Rotational is the new framework and the concept is still developmental with each treaty ally in the region, the source said.

The reality is money. Sequestration has forced the Pentagon to look at ways of cutting costs while still getting the job done. This means words like modularity, rotational, and prepositioning are becoming trendy in the Pentagon.

Philippine defense officials said access to Subic Bay and Subic International Airport would first be used to preposition humanitarian assistance and disaster relief equipment and supplies. US forces using these facilities will rotate through the same way US forces rotate in Australia and Singapore.

“The number one enemy in the region is Mother Nature,” not war, the US defense source said.

This does not mean the US will not assist in Manila’s military modernization plans. For the US military, this will begin with increased joint training and exercises, including efforts to improve the way the Philippine military develops requirements for arms procurements.

Manila has a long list of defense equipment it wants but cannot seem to make up its mind about what it really needs, said defense sources in Washington. These include 12 lead-in fighters, maritime patrol aircraft, multi-role maritime helicopters, helicopter dock ships and frigates. The Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle was mentioned several times by sources last week as a popular contender for the lead-in fighter requirement.

Philippine defense officials said they need a “minimum credible defense” that includes better C4ISR. “We want to know what is happening in our backyard and have the ability to respond to it. The US presence is welcome, but the responsibility is our own.”

The Philippines has little or no C4ISR infrastructure. The US has begun assisting the Philippines in the area of maritime surveillance with enhancements to its National Coast Watch Center by upgrading facilities that were originally designed to track transnational criminals, such as pirates and terrorists.

Last week, the US delivered the second of two former US Coast Guard high-endurance cutters to the Philippine Navy. Despite media reports, discussions on a third cutter are not underway, Philippine and US defense sources said. One source indicated the cutters were provided to the Philippines as excess defense articles and were not furbished. Several countries in the region are talking with Manila about refurbishing both vessels.

Instead of taking on the costs of transferring the third vessel, they are taking the money saved and refurbishing the first two. A third is a possibility in the future, a US defense source said.

The second cutter arrived Aug. 6 at Alava Wharf, near Subic Bay, during a public ceremony led by Philippine President Benigno Aquino. He said the new ships would help the country patrol its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from shore.

Since 2011, Manila has expressed frustration with China over maritime incursions and counterclaims by Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ EEZ. The issue culminated in April 2012 when eight Chinese fishing boats were challenged by the Philippine Navy. In July, Chinese vessels erected a barrier to the shoal’s entrance and stationed vessels from the China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command nearby.

The encounter has shaken the Philippines and created unexpected enthusiasm for a return of the US military, which was expelled from Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in 1991.

The problem is that the US has yet to gather a consensus on whether China is an enemy, Nugent said. This is evident by the Pentagon’s insistence that the Air-Sea Battle concept is not aimed directly at China.

The Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle Office told Defense News the concept is a response to anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies, which is a response to the successful US campaign during the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have been a power projection force. A2/AD exists because we are a power projection force. Air-Sea Battle is a response to the creation of A2/AD. There’s the rub,” an official with the Air-Sea Battle office said.

What the Philippines has done is jump on the “China threat bandwagon” without considering the possibility the US might not pull the wagon, said a former Pentagon official who now works as a consultant on US defense strategy in Asia.

Today, the US is far more dependent on China than the Philippines. US State Department declarations of a peaceful resolution of South China disputes and taking itself out of the Scarborough fight are clear indications of sea change since the end of the Cold War. (WENDELL MINNICK, Defense News.Com)