MELBOURNE, Australia – The United States is supporting the Philippine military with manned and unmanned aircraft in its fight to regain control of a city in the country’s south that has been taken over by militants linked to the Islamic State.
Local media covering the fighting between troops belonging to the Armed Forces of the Philippines or AFP and militants in the city of Marawi on Mindanao Island have photographed an AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma Unmanned Aerial Vehicle being operated by Western personnel near the battle, as well as a Lockheed-Martin P-3C Orion circling the city on separate occasions.
The P-3C Orion seen over Marawi city was clearly marked with U.S. Navy titles, and was almost certainly performing persistent surveillance and intelligence-gathering tasks using its powerful electro-optics and other onboard systems, similar to the role it has performed for coalition land forces over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The RQ-20 Puma will be able to perform a similar mission, albeit at a more tactical level compared to the Orion to aid in the Philippine military’s operations against the militants, which include fighters from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, both who have earlier pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The acknowledgement that U.S. forces are supporting the AFP in its efforts to retake Marawi came as 13 Filippino marines were killed and another 40 injured on Friday in what has been the AFP’s biggest single day loss of the campaign, bringing to 58 the number of its personnel killed since the fighting began.
In response to questions from Defense News, a U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific spokeswoman said by email that "U.S. special operations forces are assisting the AFP with ongoing operations in Marawi that helps AFP commanders on the ground in their fight against Maute and ASG militants" at the request of the Philippine government, adding that "the U.S. government continues to work with the AFP to increase intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities through security assistance and training".
Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesperson for the Philippine Army’s First Infantry Division, had previously said that U.S. forces have been providing "technical assistance" to the Philippines forces although he emphasized that the U.S. forces were not participating in combat operations.
Troops from the AFP have been battling the ISIS-linked militants since late May, when a failed military raid in Marawi to capture the "emir" or leader of ISIS in the Philippines Isnilon Hapilon resulted in the militants seizing the city in a surprise strike which has been described by Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst, as "opportunistic".
Since then the AFP has been fighting to regain the city and have managed to liberate all but the center of Marawi, although their efforts have been hampered by their lack of training, inexperience in operating within a dense urban environment as well as stubborn resistance from the militants, who include foreign fighters from regional countries and the Middle East in their ranks.
The military’s problems have also been exacerbated by a lack of coordination and advanced equipment, which have resulted in friendly fire casualties from an errant airstrike and the loss of several light armored vehicles to militant ambushes.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.