The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 2/28/20

 In Weekly Wire

The US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement: Status and Background

Aaron Lin, Research Associate

On February 11, the Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. sent the US government a notice of termination of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which came down from an order by President Rodrigo Duterte. While the termination notice ostensibly damages the US-Philippine alliance, this development is still in flux and the outcome is uncertain.

The proximate cause of the termination appears to be a response to the January cancellation of Philippine Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa’s visa to the US. Dela Rosa played a major role in implementing President Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which drew international ire due to human rights violations. Shortly before Dela Rosa’s visa cancellation, the US appropriations bill signed into law in December 2019 included a provision that prohibited the entry of “foreign government officials involved in the wrongful imprisonment … of Senator Leila De Lima,” a key opposition senator. Preceding these moves was President Duterte’s long history of anti-American sentiment, dating back well before his rise to presidency in 2016.

The termination notice starts a 180-day timer, after which the agreement will take legal effect. The agreement will remain in force during the 180-day period. The US government has expressed hope that the termination can be delayed or reversed within that time. The VFA governs the legal status of US forces that are temporarily stationed in the Philippines and facilitates important activities such as joint training exercises and advisory missions. While the US-Philippine alliance under the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 is still intact, implementing the treaty becomes much more difficult if the VFA is terminated.

The most important factor to note is the widespread disagreement within the government of the Philippines. The termination was essentially an executive order by President Duterte, leaving executive officials like Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana with little room to oppose the decision; even the president’s cabinet members had advised against the move. Philippine senators have been questioning the termination before the Phillippine Supreme Court. The argument being brought forward to the Supreme Court is that treaties and international agreements cannot be terminated or withdrawn from without senate approval. Within the senate, a resolution has been adopted to ask the president to reconsider his decision. The military establishment will certainly oppose the move, as it has benefitted greatly from US training and assistance.

Despite the generally positive relationship between the US and Philippine militaries, the relationship has not been free from scrutiny. US forces were removed from the Philippines during the 1990s, only to be re-introduced after the September 11 terrorist attacks and a more assertive China. In December 2018, Defense Secretary Lorenzana called for a review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty provisions, stating that Philippine government lawyers had been tasked to find ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.” This review was prompted by the longstanding lack of clarity from the US regarding whether the treaty covered the South China Sea. Lorenzana said that scrapping the treaty altogether was an option if the US would not clarify the scope of the treaty. Considering Lorenzana’s pro-US stance, such a statement could be seen as a smart negotiating tactic to get US officials to either provide the clarity he seeks, or to plan for a contingency in which the US may not engage in the event of a conflict over the Philippines’ South China Sea territorial claims.


Earlier this week, each branch of the military released their unfunded priorities list for FY2021, including the newly formed Space Force. The unfunded priorities list, released each year, contains a list of programs for which the services would like Congress to supply additional funding. The Space Force listed several big-ticket items, including GPSIII satellite launches; on-orbit tests for the fifth Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) satellite; integration of the final SBIRS satellite; satellite communication improvements; space situational awareness capabilities; and payload development for Navigation Technology Satellite-3. The additional funding required to support these programs represents nearly 75 percent of the total Space Force unfunded list, or $719 million out of the total $1 billion for the entire unfunded list. The costliest acquisitions on this unfunded list are the two GPSIII launches worth $255 million. The Space Force FY2021 budget includes launch acquisitions under the National Security Space Launch (formerly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle), however none of the three launches being acquired are for the GPSIII satellites. Both the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office use the National Security Space Launch program to launch satellites into orbit. Overall, the Space Force-requested budget for FY2021 (excluding the unfunded list) is $15.4 billion, of which $10.3 billion is allocated to development, $2.4 billion for procurement, and $2.6 billion for operations and maintenance.


An announcement during President Trump’s visit to India indicated that the two countries had signed a deal for India to purchase more than $3 billion of defense equipment from the United States. The headlining acquisition was the purchase of 24 MH-60R helicopters for $2.12 billion, concluding an acquisition process that stretched back to 2009. The deal will see the MH-60Rs equipped with APS-153V radars, Airborne Low Frequency Systems, AN/AAS-44C MTS sensors, Hellfire missiles, advanced precision kill weapon system rockets, and Mk 54 lightweight torpedoes. While the remainder of the deal’s value has yet to be officially released, it is highly likely that it represents the potential sale of an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System that the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced on February 10. The potential $1.8 billion deal would see the Indian government acquire AN/MPQ-64FI Sentinel radars, launchers capable of firing either the 118 AMRAAMs or 134 Stinger missiles, and sufficient weapons and support equipment to provision such defense batteries.


On February 26, the US State Department announced that it had approved a Foreign Military Sale of four AT-6C light attack aircraft to Tunisia. The sale has been valued at $325.8 million. In addition to the aircraft, Tunisia is also requesting 486 MK81 250 LB GP bombs, 48 MK-82 500lb bombs, and 3,290 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, among other weapons and avionics systems. The goal of the sale is to improve Tunisia’s ability to fight extremist groups in its territory and to improve the bilateral relationship between the United States and Tunisia. There will likely be offsets associated with this sale, but those have yet to be negotiated between Tunisia and Textron Aviation Defense. Additionally, the approval of the sale does not mean that the sale has been finalized, so the contract value could change.


The French Army is looking at investing in a substantial amount of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) over the next five years in a surge to improve its ISR capacities in hostile environments, chiefly in Mali and sub-Saharan regions. The French General Armament Directorate released a request for proposal last week for nearly 2,000 UAS systems, such as the Black Hornet system. A complete system includes one drone for day observation, another one with one infrared observation capabilities, batteries, and C2 tablet. The first batch should comprise 200 systems with expected delivery by late 2020; the second batch is planned for 2021. The objective in the outyears will be to progressively integrate the small UAS into the Scorpion collaborative combat environment. The French firm Novadem is well positioned among potential contenders, as the company has already provided 27 NX70 Block II mini-drones in late 2019 to cover the French Army’s urgent operational requirements. However, any supplier should expect to be challenged by questions regarding production rates and delivery timelines.

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