US transfers surveillance planes to the Philippines

cap: Philippine Air Force pilots checking a Cessna-208B surveillance aircraft acquired from the US government, in Manila on July 27, 2017.
cap: Philippine Air Force pilots checking a Cessna-208B surveillance aircraft acquired from the US government, in Manila on July 27, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (REUTERS) - The United States on Thursday (July 27) transferred to the Philippines two brand-new, single-engine surveillance planes, boosting the capability of its former colony to patrol sprawling maritime borders, including pirate-infested southern waters.

At a ceremony at an air base in Manila, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said two Cessna 208B aircraft were fitted with electro-optical sensors and other surveillance equipment to detect ships in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

"These planes will give us more capability to patrol our seas and guard against intrusions," Lorenzana said. "These are not spy planes, only surveillance aircraft, because they are not stealth."

The military variant of the plane can operate for hours at an altitude of 7,620m and has a range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,852km).

The planes, worth about US$2 million (S$2.7 million) each, can also be used against Islamist militants in Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao. But the whole package costs US$30 million, including the surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance (ISR) gear.

Philippine troops have been battling hundreds of pro-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants who seized Marawi City on May 23, killing nearly 600 people and displacing close to 500,000 residents in Lanao del Sur.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said the US decided last year to transfer the planes under its US$425-million Maritime Security Initiative to help South-east Asian countries tackle regional security challenges, including China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The Philippines got more than 80 per cent of the US$49.72 million allocated in 2016 under the MSI programme, a reward after Manila agreed to allow the US access to its five bases.

Two Eagle Scan unmanned aerial vehicles will also be donated by September to help tactical units defeat Islamist militants.

In Febuary, Washington also donated hand-held Raven drones to the Philippine Marines operating against the Abu Sayyaf militants on the southern island of Jolo.

The military said it had bought hundreds of 500-pound bombs and unspecified rockets from the US to replenish its inventory, depleted by daily bomb runs in Marawi City.