The rise of ISIS within the Philippines has fast become a new and dangerous threat for the spread of violent Islamic extremism. This threat was highlighted by the seemingly unprecedented siege of the northern city of Marawi, which resulted in approximately 150 Filipino soldiers killed and hundreds more wounded, in addition to the countless civilian casualties attributed to the conflict. Given the ISIS-driven power of this insurgency, it is no surprise that almost all of the tactics, techniques and procedures being encountered by Filipino forces are identical to those developed and practised in the current Middle-East conflict by ISIS militants. With the escalation of this threat, especially so close to Australia, this raises the question of how the Australian Government, through the Australian Defence Force (ADF), could contribute to a Train, Advise and Assist mission in support of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). To do this, we will break up the approach into the three separate parts of Raise, Train and Sustain, and identify the focus and contribution which the ADF could provide.
Raise the force. The current conflict in the Philippines strongly mirrors that of the rise of ISIS within the Middle-East, which allows us to tailor a specific force and training focus to what has been successful across the last ten years of dealing with Islamic extremism and the resulting conflict. Australian Federal Police have already begun partnered work with Filipino Police Forces and intelligence agencies to better develop intelligence gathering and identifying the means of importing weapons, ordinance and most importantly, foreign fighters. Through this, they have been able to raise a more effective and technologically superior security force as the Filipino Police Force already had significant manpower available to it and now has directed and tailored training.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines is a numerically superior force, with over 120,000 active service soldiers. Although they do not require more soldiers, the Army appears to be lacking sizable and technologically capable branches to deal with the complexities of modern unconventional warfare. The key focus in raising a force to combat this style of unconventional warfare would be to re-train the conventional combat arms components of the Army in tactics, techniques and procedures tested and proven in the current Middle-Eastern conflict zone, as well as create specialist branches to increase technological capability. This would potentially include recruiting from universities or creating scholarships to increase recruiting into the Armed forces and therefore the number of technically qualified individuals to fulfil intelligence and surveillance trade positions.
Train the force. As demonstrated in the Middle-East, particularly with Task Group TAJI, mentoring and training missions have proven successful in shaping and re-focussing military forces toward a specific threat and conflict. With the ISIS threat in the Philippines being almost identical to the personnel, equipment and tactics used in the Middle-East, the current training used by Coalition Forces in training our Middle-Eastern counterparts could be used to the same effect in the Philippines.
The most crucial part of this phase would be to identify the current level of training which every soldier receives in soldier skills, and tailor those to a modern unconventional warfare environment. This would be achieved by embedding Australian trainers into current Filipino training establishments to assess and document the current standard and style of training. Once that has been completed, an assessment followed by a re-structured training program could be developed and put into place. Australian Forces would likely have to take the lead on teaching and guiding the new training process until such a time that enough local forces are competent. This could then be supplemented by continual observation and advisory positions being established for Australian members to maintain the training standard.
Specialised training for key trades would need to be established, namely combat arms and technologically-based jobs such as intelligence, surveillance and communications. Again, much like the Middle-Eastern conflict zone, instructors and trainers could be sent over as part of a Task Group to teach these specialised roles, varying from combat shooting, urban war fighting, intelligence processing and counter-IED training. For example, the Philippine Army is in the process of purchasing its third UAV, highlighting the limited experience within the field of modern surveillance techniques. Such specialised training roles could further be enhanced by introducing pre-established packages with training equipment such as the combat shooting package developed by the Combined Arms Training Centre used here within the Australian Army.
A third avenue of training to better combat the current threat is inter-agency cooperation. The current training and partnership between Filipino Police and Australian Federal Police could be exponentially improved be introducing joint training between Host Nation Police and Military Forces. As shown in the Middle-East conflict, partnered operations between Iraqi National Police and Iraqi Military Forces have proven to be much more
effective in providing a whole solution to combating the ISIS threat, rather than just focusing on combat and the military campaign itself.
While Australian Federal Police continue to focus on developing and teaching a comprehensive package on counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism, the ADF could provide guidance to Host Nation forces on developing and teaching inter-agency protocols to enable a complete solution to the ISIS threat, particularly given the criminal element involved in the movement and smuggling of ISIS weapons, fighters and equipment.
In order to achieve this, the ADF would likely have to invest serious time and effort into increasing the language capability for personnel who are to deploy in support of this mission. While working with interpreters can provide a solution to this issue, those who would be placed in key positions to influence and shape Filipino operations and strategy would be better prepared and positioned if they had a good understanding of Filipino language and customs.
Sustain the force. To maintain the continuation and standards set by the new training components, Australian Forces would likely have to become involved in both an advisory an assistance capacity. In order to provide effective advice to the Host Nation forces, key positions at both a higher headquarters and command level will need to be established. This could come in the form of establishing permanent positions for Australian members within training establishments, advisors to key leaders and also liaison positions to supplement inter-agency cooperation both internal to the Philippines and internationally with neighbouring governments and their intelligence services.
In providing an assistance role within the Philippines, the ADF could supplement key assets and equipment to increase the technological capability of the Filipino forces. For example, currently the ADF provides a surveillance capability within the current conflict be providing two AP-3C Orion aircraft to support active operations. A new area in which the ADF could provide assistance is through the embedding of intelligence and signals specialists
within Filipino units to provide tactical level advice and on the job training to crucial functions which have proven to be decisive when combating the ISIS threat in campaigns across the Middle-East.
In summary, I believe the ADF is in a strong position to provide an effective Train, Advise and Assist mission in the Philippines. Given the experience and processes currently being practised in the Middle-East by Australian and Coalition Forces to train Host Nation forces to combat ISIS expansion, this same approach and focuses could be used to increase the capability and success of Filipino forces in the current conflict. Further to that, the proximity of this conflict to Australia only strengthens the significance and importance of implementing such a mission to increase the capability of our neighbouring countries and strengthen relations in the current uncertain environment across the South-East Asian region.
About the author: Lieutenant Lachlan Tremble joined the Australian Army in June 2015. He graduated from Royal Military College Duntroon in December 2016 and was assigned to the Royal Australian Corps of Military Police. He is currently employed as a Platoon Commander at, 1st Military Police Battalion. He participated in Exercise TALISMAN SABRE 17, where as a Platoon Commander within the Force Protection Company he provided manoeuvre and mobility support.