Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee of the Stratbase ADR Institute
In late May 2017, about 1,000 Islamic militants led by the Maute group and fighting under the black flag of the Islamic Army of Syria and Iraq took control of the central business district of Marawi City. The raid took President Rodrigo Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines by surprise.
Since taking office, Duterte had focused his attention as well as the resources and personnel of the Philippine National Police on his relentless campaign on illegal drugs. He was unprepared for the Islamic militant threat that had been festering in Mindanao for years, reinforced by the arrival of seasoned combatants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Trained for jungle warfare and used in operating in small-units, the Philippine military initially was unable to dislodge the militants despite deploying ground troops and armor personnel carriers, and bombing the city from the air.
Urban fighting in Marawi City exposed the AFP’s limitations. Ten Philippine Army troops were killed by friendly air force fire while 13 Philippine Marines lost their lives in one day of street-to-street fighting with the seasoned militants from all over the world.
For the AFP, defeating the ISIS militants in Marawi City as soon as possible became an imperative because a lengthy siege would attract more militants to Mindanao to reinforce their fellow fighters in the city or be deployed in other parts of the island.
Confronted with a terrorist movement capable of waging a conventional warfare in an urban setting, the AFP requested security assistance from its security partners. Consequently, while covering the bloody street-to-street fighting between the AFP and Islamic militants allied to ISIS, an Associated Press correspondent and his photographer saw and took pictures of a US-Navy P3 Orion circling the besieged city of Marawi as Philippine Air Force helicopters fired rockets on ground targets.
News of American military presence in Marawi City spread like wild fire in Manila. A day after the reported sighting, AFP spokesperson General Restituto Padilla confirmed that a US Navy aircraft had provided surveillance for the AFP as Philippine soldiers and marines fought house-to-house combat with the Muslim militants.
Another security partner of the Philippines who provided immediate assistance during the Battle of Mariwi City is Australia. Australia sent two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircrafts to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support to the AFP’s combat operations. Signal and photographic intelligence provided by the American and Australian reconnaissance planes enabled the AFP to deploy its FA-50s fighter planes and OV-10 ground attack planes to launch surgical airstrikes on the ISIS’ positions in the city.
During the fighting, Australia has also considered sending Australian Defense Force (ADF) personnel to the Philippines to advise and assist the AFP in its counter-terrorism campaign against the Islamic militants—something that the ADF has been doing in Iraq. Since 2015, the ADF’s Task Force Taji has trained thousands of Iraqi military personnel in urban warfare.
In his meeting with Duterte, the director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Nick Warner, offered Australian technical assistance, training, and information gathering and sharing to the Philippines in its fight against international terrorism. The presidential spokesperson said that the Philippines is most interested in gaining Australian intelligence assistance, and the country is keen to strengthen its defense relationship with Australia.
Philippine-Australian security partnership in retrospect
The Philippines and Australia are formal treaty allies that have been conducting joint security training. In 2007, the two countries signed the Philippine-Australia Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA). The agreement follows the format of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement signed in 1997. The SOFA provides legal guarantees to Australian forces conducting joint-counter terrorism exercises in the Philippines. It also signifies commitment from the ADF to advice the AFP on its logistics and acquisition policy.
In July 2012, after five years of intense debates and deliberations, the Philippine Senate finally ratified the agreement. SOFA contains the detailed legal framework for Philippine-Australian military activities, such as the Coast Watch South project and the Joint Maritime Training Activity Lumbas. After the ratification, the DND announced that Australia looked forward to joining the annual Philippine-U.S. Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military exercise.
In October 2013, the two countries’ defense ministers created the Joint Defense Cooperation Working Group (JDCC) and the Defense Cooperation Working Group (DCWG) to enhance their countries’ defense relations through the annual conduct of the previously mentioned Army-to-Army exercise Dawn Caracha, Dusk Caracha, and the Navy-to-Navy Maritime Training Activity Lumbas and Kakadu and the Air Force Training Pitch Black. Eventually, the Australian Defense Force sent 68 participants to the Philippine-U.S. Balikatan Exercise 2014.
Former President Benigno Aquino III offered Australia a strategic partnership similar to what the country has forged with the US and Japan. He commented that both countries have been usually on the same side during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He added that Australia and the Philippines share the same values and form of government, as well as face the same regional and global challenges.
On Nov. 18, 2015, in the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Pacific Economic Community’s Leaders Meeting in Manila, Aquino and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed the Joint Declaration on Australia-Philippine Comprehensive Partnership (DCP). The agreement formalizes what has been a close and comprehensive working bilateral relation between two American allies.
In March 2016, the PN officially took delivery of three former Australian Balikpapan-class land craft heavy (LCH) from Australia. The three LCHS are former ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships that were transferred to the Philippines as part of a set of five vessels acquired by the PN from Australia. The first two ships were donated and commissioned into the PN in 2015. The three newly acquired ships were sold to Manila for a friendship price of P270 million (US$5.8 million).
The acquisition of the five LCHs bolstered the PN’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations capabilities. They are also useful in transporting troops from one island to another and for the conduct of amphibious operations all over the Philippines archipelago.
The November 2015 DCP commits Australia to assist the Philippines in defense modernization, including through bilateral and multilateral exercises, education and training and maritime cooperation. Australian troops participate in the annual Philippine-US Balikatan exercises.
In 2016, Australia sent 86 Australian Defense Force (ADF) personnel, with a contingent of a 30-strong Special Forces element from the 2nd Commando Regiment. Australia also deployed an RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft.
In 2017, it deployed 80 ADF personnel, and an RAAF Orion patrol aircraft. By participating in four consecutive Balikatan exercises, Australia aims to build strong relationship with the AFP, while maintaining interoperability with the United States Pacific Command (PACOM).
Limits of the Philippine-Australian security partnership
In the aftermath of the battle of Marawi City, Australia is currently looking at further collaboration and capacity-building work with the Philippines and other regional partners on fostering cooperation among regional coast guards to tighten border control in the Sulu Sea in an effort to limit the movement of money, technology, and fighters to join extremist groups in the southern Philippines.
On Oct. 19, 2017, the HMAS Adelaide and the HMAS Darwin dropped anchors in the port of Manila for a four-day visit. During the visit, Filipino and Australian naval forces conducted a disaster-drill exercise to show the deepening security ties between their two countries in light of natural calamities, piracy, and territorial disputes.
While conducting the exercise, 100 Philippine marines and Australian sailors took off from the HMAS Adelaide on board troop carriers that rushed them to Subic Bay Port. This was the first time the AFP personnel have had the opportunity to operate from the helicopter landing dock. This joint exercise demonstrated the capability of the HMAS Canberra class amphibious ship to support regional responses to natural disasters.
The Philippines and Australia also signed an agreement that will increase military cooperation between the two countries for capacity-building and address the threat of terrorism. Under this agreement, the ADF will send mobile training teams that will train the AFP on urban warfare and counter-terrorism. The agreement also provides for port visits by the Royal Australian Navy to engage the Philippine Navy in a range of cooperative activities to support its capability development.
Like the Philippines-Japan security partnership, Manila’s security ties with Canberra are limited by three constraints. Firstly, located outside of the East Asian region, Australia will always have other security concerns outside of the region. Secondly, Australia will never extend any security guarantee to the Philippines. Thirdly, Australia will only provide military equipment that is geared for maritime surveillance and transport to the Philippines. Canberra will never provide any lethal military combat hardware to the AFP.
Like Tokyo, Canberra has no intention of replacing Washington as Manila’s only formal treaty ally. Australia still values its alliance with the US and actively supports its efforts to remain as a Pacific power determined in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific region.