Back to base
Nestled in the mangrove forests of Palawan Island’s western shore is the Philippine Oyster Bay navy base. It is currently home to a small fleet that patrols the waters of the South China Sea. But if Manila gets its wish, this sleepy backwater of a military installation could soon see the arrival of US naval forces.
Rising territorial tensions with China over the Spratly Islands, 160km away from Palawan, have compelled the Philippine government to ask its old ally in Washington to redeploy troops to the country – only two decades after ordering the US military to vacate their bases. Officials are still working out the details of a new pact that was signed by presidents Barack Obama and Benigno Aquino earlier this year, which paves the way for the arrival of American soldiers.
China should not see the development of the Oyster Bay station as a threat says Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. American assistance to develop the base will increase his nation’s projection of power into the disputed waters, he argues. “We just want to defend what is ours.”
Local reaction is mixed. Residents of a poor fishing village adjacent to Oyster Bay hope the stationing of US personnel in their backyard will boost the economy. Meanwhile, environmentalists fear that the island’s mangroves and marine life could suffer.
“Palawan is virtually a protected area,” says lawyer Grizelda Mayo-Anda, adding that given the poor state in which the Americans left their former bases, they don’t have a good track record when it comes to the environment.
Q&A- Matt Bryden
Director, Sahan Research
The killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane was a symbolic blow to the jihadist movement that may bring divisions to a head. A successor was named almost immediately but this is probably the decision of just one faction. More importantly, al-Shabaab is currently on the defensive, losing ground to AU troops and their Somali allies on the ground. We ask Matt Bryden, an expert on the area, what this means for security in the Horn of Africa.
Is Islamic extremism a new phenomenon?
Islamic extremism emerged as a problem in the early 1990s when Islamist radicals took advantage of the wave of democratisation and political instability that followed the end of the Cold War. Based in Sudan, al-Qaeda exploited the situation to build terrorist networks through East Africa. Al-Shabaab, al-Hijra and most other jihadist groups can trace their origins to that period.
How has the terrorism threat in Kenya evolved recently?
It has become more severe. There have been dozens of attacks in Kenya since the army entered Somalia in 2011. Most of these have been minor but some have been very serious. Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan affiliate, al-Hijra, has been growing in strength and capability, and increasingly poses a domestic threat.
Are regional governments ready and able to counterthe threat of terrorism?
Regional governments have awakened to the threat of terrorism and are increasingly skilled and sophisticated in their countermeasures – from intelligence and policing through combating terrorist financing and money laundering, and training specialised units and prosecutors. But much remains to be done. Regional co-operation and intelligence sharing is erratic. And many countries in the region suffer domestic problems, such as instability, corruption and weak public administration, that enable terrorist activity.
The US army’s latest annual Unified Quest Deep Future Wargame set soldiers against opponents in a future “megacity” environment, sometime between 2030 and 2040, and they didn’t fare well. In particular, Unified Quest illustrated how difficult it is to bring the combined arms – air support, artillery, protected firepower and infantry – to bear in a megacity for fear of killing civilians. The US National Intelligence Council forecasts that by 2030, nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in a megacity – defined as having a population of at least 10 million – so the army is looking at ways to get better at urban warfare, fast.
“It’s not about pouring brigade after brigade into a megacity, they’ll just get swallowed up,” says Colonel Kevin Felix, chief of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (Arcic), which runs Unified Quest. “This wargame takes into account new operational concepts and technologies.”
Given the outcome, Arcic has highlighted areas for further investigation: how the army trains for urban operations; autonomous systems; synthetic biology – the role of cures for diseases, biological weapons and epidemics; offensive and defensive cyber operations; and energy security underpinning manoeuvre capabilities.
The hard cell
The Australian Defence Force has backed the development of wearable solar-cell technology that could reduce the need for soldiers to carry heavy disposable batteries. Built at Australian National University (ANU) under a au$2.3m (€1.6m) defence research contract, Sliver takes the form of a wafer-fin panel that affixes to backpacks and charges batteries for night-vision goggles, GPS and other devices.
ANU professor Andrew Blakers is optimistic about securing further funding that could see the technology in the field within three years. He adds that transportable rolls of Sliver’s panelling have the potential to power advanced bases. “A lot of lives and dollars were spent on getting diesel into Afghanistan bases,” he says.
“Our foldable panels could replace between 100 and 1,000 times their weight in diesel and once they are installed fuel, would come from the sky rather than via troops over land.”