Now we're sending planes and drones to the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

With all of the unrest going on in other parts of the world this summer (North Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Syria, etc.), it’s not too surprising if we miss some of the stories coming out of the Philippines. But they’ve got their own share of troubles to worry about. Their new president has been raising eyebrows around the world with his war on drugs, which sometimes entails killing the occasional mayor of a smaller city, as well as some external threats as well. But they remain one of our allies, at least for now, and you take your friends where you can get them I suppose.

While visiting the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an announcement which I didn’t see coming. It turns out that we’ve been supplying President Rodrigo Duterte with “planes and drones” for military applications. But we need to dig a bit further into the story to see that it’s not quite as dramatic as the Associated Press headlines are making it out to be.

The United States has been providing the Philippines with surveillance capabilities, training, information and aircraft to help it fight a monthslong siege of a southern city by pro-Islamic State group militants, the top U.S. diplomat said Monday as he prepared to meet the country’s polarizing president.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Manila for a regional gathering, said the equipment includes a few Cessna aircraft and a few drones. He said they’ll help the Philippines battle “an enemy that fights in a way that most people have never had to deal with.”

“We think they are beginning to get that situation under control,” Tillerson told reporters. “But the real challenge is going to come with once they have the fighting brought to an end how to deal with the conditions on the ground to ensure it does not re-emerge.”

So this situation boils down to a question of not only what we’re sending to Duterte, but where he’s supposed to be using the equipment. While most of the focus has been on the domestic unrest caused by the President’s crusade against the illegal drug trade, the Philippines has also been dealing with a serious incursion from ISIS. While nowhere near the size or severity of what happened in Syria and Iraq over the past few years, hundreds of people have died on both sides of the fighting. No matter what your opinion of the current president in that nation, you’ve got to put your chips on the side of the guy who’s actually fighting the monsters of ISIS. With that in mind I suppose our support is understandable.

But the hardware in question shouldn’t be all that alarming either. When I first saw the headlines I was picturing something like the sale of a fleet of F-35s, but we’re actually talking about Cessnas which are being used for aerial surveillance. That’s a bit of a head scratcher in at least one regard. I realize that the Philippines isn’t exactly rolling in cash at the moment, but as any of my skydiving buddies could tell you, anybody can lay their hands on a used, four passenger Cessna 172 (the most commonly produced aircraft in the world) for around $75K and a new one with all the bells and whistles won’t run you much more than a quarter million. Surely the Philippines can afford them?

And as for the drones, it sounds as if they’re getting smaller, surveillance units, not the industrial strength big boys that are firing rockets at the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Duterte is using this hardware against ISIS, all is well and good. I can’t imagine anyone with a shred of decency arguing against that. The real question is what happens if he starts using this gear on his own people? Their president doesn’t always appear to be the most stable person in the world (with a tendency to be a bit on the stabby and shooty side), and other countries are watching him nervously. For the time being, his more militaristic activities are still being conducted in the name of law and order, fighting drug dealers and criminals. But the collateral damage is adding up pretty quickly and we probably don’t want our fingerprints on any friendly fire scenarios which may arise later.