Are the Philippine Bases Back in the Inventory?

A couple of years ago the government contractor rumor fly wheel began to spin the yarn that military bases in the Philippines were being resuscitated. Fantastic as it seemed at the time, it may be so; at least for Subic Bay and Clark AFB. The Hill’s Carlos Munoz said …“The deal to reopen Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base was struck during Dempsey’s visit to the Asia-Pacific region to

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

attend the Shangri-La defense talks held in Singapore last Saturday…” (06/06/12).[1] More recently, The New York Times Asia Desk ran a Floyd Whaley piece confirming that “…A subsidiary of a major U.S. defense company is bidding on ship repair and logistical support contracts, and the Philippine Department of National Defense has reserved large portions of the former base for future use by the Philippine military and its allies, principally the United States.” (April 26, 2013).[2] If it is true that the U.S. and the Philippines kissed and made up, it is good news for U.S. Pacific forces stuck on vulnerable pieces of land like Guam.

It seems like only yesterday, I was dealing with an antsy Johnston Atoll Base Commander, an Air Force Colonel, preparing for General McPeak’s visit. The general was on the return leg of a visit to the Philippines to decommission Clark Air Force Base, located about forty miles northwest of

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Manila. General McPeak’s airplane was also carrying the last Clark AFB commander and his wife back to the U.S. For Johnston Island, General McPeak was a big deal; a four-star general, chief of staff of the US Air Force, and a decorated Vietnam fighter pilot combat veteran.

It is no small wonder that the Johnston Island Base Commander was worried about everything from flag protocols to FOD, Foreign Object Debris. Air Force service members are, in general, obsessed with FOD on runways and taxiways because it breaks airplanes. The Base Commander took FOD to a whole new level when he directed a full sweep of the island accompanied by stain removal. Roads, sidewalks, maintenance yards, and parking lots were spit polished and gleaming in the tropical sun; a shining city with no hill. In preparation for the visit, the fruit and snacks were inspected and re-inspected and the tour route of the environmental remediation projects was arranged and re-arranged. Island residents, civilian and military, were washed and re-washed before donning their Sunday best. I was relieved when General McPeak and the others finally landed and taxied to the terminal.  General McPeak was a tightly packed, no nonsense, squared-away general. Following introductions, the premier tour commenced immediately. The only departure from the itinerary was that I, as the contractor manager, was assigned to take care of the Clark Base commander’s wife’s dog. Bummer, I got to step and fetch it to every whim of a cool canine while our base commander drank Tums.

By late afternoon, the visit was all over and the general’s jet was serviced, cleaned, re-provisioned and ready to fly. If the tour had gone well, we’d be celebrating at the Waikiki club at the edge of the lagoon by sunset. If not, we’d be drowning our sorrows at the same location. We contractors huddled outside the debriefing room waiting for a sign; white smoke for all clear or black smoke for trouble. The general made no comment on the touted plutonium clean-up project, the unique Agent Orange RCRA Part B facility, the innovative weathered diesel project, or the JACADS operation. In fact the only thing he said was that Johnston Island looked like a gypsy camp. We were not properly painted in accordance to Air Force Facility Standards. And so the base commander worried about his future and the contractors drowned their sorrows.

In the overall scheme of Cold War (1947-1991) phytoplankton, Johnston Island was too small to be seen with the unaided eye. The Philippine base closures were, by contrast, significant.  The Navy’s Subic Bay and the Air Force’s Clark AFB, have histories that go back to the Spanish Colonial period. The Philippines was a well-documented key player in WWII’s Pacific theater.  The advent of the Cold War ushered in a whole new era of military service. Michael Haydock’s article in VFW Magazine provided an outstanding overview of the lay of the Cold War landscape, “The Cold War in Asia took place in a vast theater. It stretched from the icy waters north of Japan—where a downed flier could freeze in six minutes to the muggy jungles of the Philippines and beyond to the desert wastes of the Australian outback. In many instances the duty, necessary and often dangerous, was little-known or even secret from civilians at home.”…

What began as support to the Filipino fight with Communist led rebels, the Hukbalahap (Huks), the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, taking advantage of an emerging nation ended with a vital role providing forward base support to Vietnam.  The U.S. faces increasing challenges from China, North Korea and other Asian players. The current Pacific military base locations are either too far away, such as Hawaii, or too close, such as Guam and Japan. The Philippines is in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, which offers sufficient time to launch a counter-strike in the event of a missile attack.  Clark Air Base’s runways can land the largest U.S. military airplanes and Subic Bay, once the largest American overseas military base in the world, has a harbor capable of handling submarines and the largest naval vessels.[3] If the goal can be realized, bases in the Philippines are an excellent investment.

There is trouble in paradise, however. It seems the U.S. government cannot keep its word to the Philippines. According to Philippines Politics Buzz, “While the Philippines keeps hoping for USA to come for a rescue and honor the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) during the china’s (sic) invasion in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, USA opted not to side with the Philippines but take its neutral stance proving that the USA-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is futile. The very important decision of USA proves that they could not honor what they have signed for the Philippines.”… [4] This decision will, no doubt, lead to re-examination of the wisdom of dealing with the U.S.

On July 29, 1991, Ted Galen Carpenter issued the Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12: The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines: Expensive and Unnecessary.[5] I disagreed with Carpenter then, and I disagree with him now that I have re-read the discussion. I have never bought either the ‘diminishing threat’ or ‘implausible missions’ concepts in Asia. The Pacific is an enormous theater and there are not too many places to hide. The U.S. has a decreasing military land base from which to maneuver. The Philippines is an excellent, strategically located base for operations, if they can be convinced the U.S. government is a faithful ally. Why is it that both the Islamic extremists and Communists are so hot to trot for a Philippines takeover? Islamic extremists do not comprehend western civilization. China is not a friend of western civilization and they are increasing their military presence. With the world swirling in a geopolitical maelstrom, one would think the least the U.S. government could do is keep its word, for once.


[1] The Hill; Carlos Munoz; 06/06/12; The Philippines re-opens military bases to US forces;

[2] The New York Times; FLOYD WHALEY; April 26, 2013; Shadows of an Old Military Base;

[3] Business Insider; Robert Johnson; June 8, 2012; The US Will Open Massive Philippine Bases Not Occupied Since The Cold War;

[4] Philippine Politics Buzz!; Philippine close deal for ISRAEL MISSILE SYSTEM after USA dishonored MDT for China’s invasion in Scarborough;

[5] Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12:The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines:Expensive and Unnecessary; Ted Galen Carpenter; July 29, 1991;