On April 19, four A-10C Warthogs flew from Clark Air Field to the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, 140 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. The flight of the A-10s near the shoal was a subtle message to China that the United States would risk military escalation to deter Chinese reclamation at this disputed feature. The A-10Cs were part of a Pacific Command Air Force rotational deployment in the Philippines, which included eight aircraft and 200 personnel in total. They constituted the first in what will become a regular cycle of U.S. Air Force rotations in the country, laying the foundation for joint air patrols between the Philippines and the United States. The follow-on rotations of U.S. aircraft and personnel in the Philippines will be determined in consultation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as provided for by the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Implementing EDCA

 EDCA’s main goal is to extend U.S. military assistance to the AFP modernization program through the establishment of a U.S. presence at Philippine military bases across the country. Development of the agreed locations within AFP bases means that the U.S. military will shoulder the cost of upgrading infrastructure for both Filipino and American use, boost disaster response readiness by prepositioning supplies, and facilitate further training between AFP and U.S. military units, specifically in maritime security and territorial defense.

During the sixth annual Bilateral Security Dialogue (BSD) held in Washington on March 18, U.S. and Philippine defense officials announced that American forces would be allowed access to five AFP bases: Antonio Bautista Air Base on the western most island of Palawan; Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay on the main island of Luzon; Lumbia Air Base in northern Mindanao; and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base on the central Philippine island of Cebu. The two allies’ utilization of these AFP facilities will enhance their respective security interests, in light of China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea, by expanding joint military exercises and training and, more significantly, enabling the United States to deploy a credible deterrent force in Southeast Asia (on a rotational basis) for the first time since 1992.

For the United States, having access to these facilities will allow it to deploy more troops, equipment, and planes, in accordance with its strategy of rebalancing to Asia. This will allow the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps Aviation to apply a version of the Cold War-era “Checkered Flag” model, wherein tactical air formations based in the United States will deploy to Asian facilities for training. This will give these tactical air units the chance to train in an environment where they might actually be called upon to fight. And like the annual Balikatan joint Philippine-U.S. military exercise, rotational deployments will allow U.S. aircrews and support personnel to become familiar with air operations in the Philippines.

The implementation of EDCA will assist the AFP with developing a credible defense posture as it revives its air defense capabilities. Philippine Air Force fighter pilots will be able to train with their U.S. counterparts at the four airbases among the agreed locations. The Philippine Air Force will also be able to make use of facilities built or improved upon by U.S. forces. Finally, EDCA implementation will go hand-in-hand with implementation of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, through which the U.S.  Department of Defense is expected to spend $425 million over five years to help boost the capabilities of Southeast Asian states. The lion’s share of the $50 million requested for FY2016—or about  $42 million—will be allocated to the Philippines.

Depriving the Dragon of its Lair

Once U.S. forces are deployed to the five agreed locations, these facilities will have significant strategic implications in the South China Sea. American use of these operationally flexible facilities spread across the sprawling Philippine archipelago will render Chinese planning and  efforts to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate in disputed waters much more difficult, if not  futile. Use of these airfields would facilitate the rapid deployment of U.S. air assets from Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and elsewhere in case of a crisis in the South China Sea.

In such an event, U.S. forces operating from the agreed locations could confound China’s anti-access/area denial planning. U.S. fighter planes, reconnaissance aircraft, and drones operating from these facilities could augment a carrier strike group’s complement of over 70 aircraft, increasing its defensive capabilities when operating in the South China Sea. Air-refueling tankers operating from these locations in the Philippines could also increase the combat radius of carrier-based F/A-18 multirole fighters. With midair refueling capabilities, a carrier strike group operating in the Philippine Sea could launch long-range air assets for strike missions in the South China Sea and even along the southern coast of China.

Bringing Back U.S. Deterrent Posture

During the Cold War, U.S. military facilities in the Philippines enabled the United States to maintain a strategic presence in the South China Sea to enhance its long-term interests of ensuring freedom of navigation, and performing its role as the offshore strategic balancer in East Asia. However, after 1992, the withdrawal of American forces from the Philippines removed any substantive U.S. military presence along the South China Sea, and has constrained what the two allies can do together in their security partnership. In the face of China’s maritime expansion, the agreed locations under EDCA will become pivotal not only in kick-starting the alliance visa increased training and enhanced interoperability, but also in reviving a U.S. deterrent posture along the South China Sea.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.