MANILA - The Philippines on Tuesday (March 13) received its first six military-grade drones purchased from the United States, as it steps up its efforts against Islamist militants believed to have regrouped just months after their defeat in the southern city of Marawi.
The six drones - costing US$13.6 million (S$17.9 million) - are Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are small, long-endurance and low-altitude UAVs built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing.
They can stay in the air for more than 20 hours, and have a maximum flight height of 10,000 ft. Each drone is 1.2 m long with a wingspan of 3m, and is launched using an air-powered catapult.
The drones are equipped with electro-optic, infrared and high-resolution video cameras that can track both stationary and moving targets.
Air Force spokesman Aristides Galang said these UAVs would be used to track terrorists in the insurgency-wracked southern island of Mindanao.
They will also be used for "limited maritime patrols" and to support government efforts against illegal logging and fishing.
The Philippine military had earlier took delivery of three AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven hand-launched drones, and is in line to aquire two General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs.
The military had to rely on drones operated by US Special Forces and AP-3C Orion surveillance planes flown by the Royal Australian Air Force to keep track of about 1,000 Islamist militants who stormed and seized large parts of Marawi city in Mindanao in May last year.
The audacious bid by the Maute extremist group to turn Marawi into a province of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ended in October when the military recaptured the city.
But at least 300 fighters managed to flee and counter-terrorism experts believe the militants have regrouped, and are already planning attacks elsewhere in Mindanao.
They are said to be using money and jewellery looted from Marawi to grow their ranks in Mindanao. They are also getting help from militants forced out of Iraq and Syria.
"ISIS Philippines is discreetly recruiting members like wildfire, and it has established strong sleeper cells in key vulnerable cities in Mindanao," said security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
Intelligence reports have indicated that militants are plotting to storm or set off bombs in the densely populated and much larger cities of Iligan and Cotabato.
On Sunday, the military claimed it killed at least 44 militants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) during clashes in Maguindanao province. The BIFF has sworn allegiance to ISIS, and is an ally of the Maute extremist group.