Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Returns to The Philippines

U.S. and Philippine officials recently confirmed that Subic Bay – a natural harbor 80 km north of Manila that was the US 7th Fleet’s home until 1992 – is going to be playing a much larger role in U.S. Pacific Fleet deployments from now on.

The former U.S. naval port and its air station, now known as Subic Bay Freeport Zone, is set to host U.S. ships, marines and aircraft on a semi-permanent basis. To compare it to a relationship: the U.S. isn’t moving back in, but it’s going to be leaving a few things at the apartment. And it’s a bit more than just a toothbrush.

"There are very few ports that can accommodate naval assets and naval carriers, and one of them is Subic,” said Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Visiting Forces Agreement Director Edilberto Adan, who was speaking to reporters aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Bonhomme Richard was just one U.S. ship that was at Subic Freeport in preparation for PHIBLEX 2013 – a 10-day annual amphibious exercise involving U.S. and Philippine Marines that began its 29th iteration earlier this month.

Adan explicitly linked Subic to the U.S. military’s much-heralded shift of emphasis to the Pacific theatre. "As the U.S. begins to implement [the rebalance], Subic will play an important role because it is one of the important facilities that can service its presence in the Pacific," he said.

In some ways, the increase in troop and platform rotations is similar to the deal that the U.S. and Australia unveiled in November 2011 that will eventually see 2,500 U.S. Marines train in Darwin. Unlike that arrangement, however, Subic will be hosting a lot of U.S. hardware and will also act as a support and servicing facility for the U.S. Navy. AMSEC, a subsidiary of U.S. shipbuilder Huntingdon Ingalls Industries announced in April that it would set up a maintenance, repair, and logistics hub at Subic using facilities owned by Korean shipbuilder Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction (HHIC).

At the time, AMSEC's Mark Balmert told IHS Jane's Defence Weekly that "Subic Bay was attractive to the navy in past years because of location and costs, and we are hopeful that it will be in the future as well."

This announcement, like any strategic change, prompts a number of questions on its true significance.

It’s possible to see the decision as a natural development of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that Manila signed with the United States in 1999. That agreement, which was not without its opponents in the Philippines and came only seven years after Subic had closed down as a U.S. base, was first invoked in 2002 when U.S. special forces arrived in support of Operation 'Enduring Freedom', working alongside the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other Islamist groups in the south of the country. The Diplomat

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