Aerial Warfare

US Marine Corps MQ-9A Reapers Begin Strategic Deployment to Philippines Amid Rising South China Sea Tensions

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US Marine Corps MQ-9A Reapers Begin Strategic Deployment to Philippines Amid Rising South China Sea Tensions

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US Marine Corps MQ-9A Reapers Begin Strategic Deployment to Philippines Amid Rising South China Sea Tensions
US Marine Corps MQ-9A Reapers Begin Strategic Deployment to Philippines Amid Rising South China Sea Tensions

The U.S. Marine Corps has commenced the deployment of MQ-9A Reaper drones to the Philippines. Operating from Basa Air Base, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) mark a new phase in the cooperative defense efforts between the U.S. and the Philippines, particularly in the context of increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. The deployment, confirmed by the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), comes at the behest of Manila and serves to enhance intelligence-sharing operations under the auspices of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. USNI News reported that the Marine Corps will employ unarmed MQ-9As to provide reconnaissance and surveillance in support of the development of intelligence sharing between the U.S. and our Philippine allies and in accordance with Philippine national laws, rules, and regulations.

While the MQ-9As are temporarily stationed in the Philippines, adhering to the country’s 1987 constitution that forbids permanent foreign military bases, the rotational deployment is allowed under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This agreement facilitates the ongoing presence of U.S. military assets on a rotational basis, enabling joint operations and infrastructure upgrades. The MQ-9A Reapers, initially stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, achieved initial operational capability last summer with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 (VMU-3). This deployment to the Philippines represents their first overseas mission, highlighting their role in supporting maritime domain awareness and surveillance activities, especially in contested regions such as the South China Sea.

In pursuit of USMC Force Design 2030 objectives, the U.S. Marine Corps is deploying two additional MQ-9A Reapers to the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.
In pursuit of USMC Force Design 2030 objectives, the U.S. Marine Corps is deploying two additional MQ-9A Reapers to the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command)

This strategic deployment follows a brief mention in a now-retracted Pacific Air Forces news release, which indicated that the drones had conducted sorties over the South China Sea to monitor the Second Thomas Shoal—a significant site of contention between the Philippines and China. Although specific details regarding the number of drones and the duration of their deployment remain undisclosed, the presence of MQ-9As underscores the U.S.’s commitment to supporting its ally amid regional disputes. Historically, U.S. drones have provided crucial support to the Philippines, as seen with the Army’s MQ-1C Grey Eagle operations during resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal. The Grey Eagle drones, stationed at Edwin Andrews Air Base, have been pivotal in both counter-terrorism and maritime security operations, further solidifying U.S.-Philippine defense collaborations.

The deployment also coincides with recent military exercises, such as Balikatan 2024, where MQ-9As played a role in maritime strike drills, showcasing the interoperability and joint operational capabilities of U.S. and Philippine forces. Basa Air Base, a critical site for this deployment, is undergoing extensive U.S.-funded upgrades under the EDCA framework. These enhancements include runway renovations, the construction of a command and control facility, and a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief warehouse. Future plans, as indicated by U.S. budgetary documents, involve expanding the apron to accommodate up to 20 aircraft and further upgrading the command and control infrastructure. This deployment takes place amidst heightened tensions with China, which has increased its maritime activities and aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, resulting in several confrontations with Philippine vessels. These incidents have intensified calls for more robust defense cooperation and support from the Philippines’ sole defense treaty ally, the United States.

US Marine Corps MQ-9A Reapers Begin Strategic Deployment to Philippines Amid Rising South China Sea Tensions
Marine Corps MQ-9A MUX/MALE is formally unveiled during a ceremony for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 (VMU-3), Marine Aircraft Group 24, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Aug 2, 2023. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command)

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