A BQM-74E drone marked "Navy" was found off the coast of the island of Masbate. US officials maintain that the drone did not contain weapons or surveillance cameras. The fishermen who originally found the 10-foot drone thought it might be a bomb. When local officials were notified they sent out munitions experts who determined it was safe. The drone was turned over to the Philippine navy.
The drone was found by a diver and fisherman near the center of the Philippine Islands just off the coast of the island of Masbate. A Filipino naval officer said he had no idea how the drone ended up so far from any US base. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Manila said that officials were investigating to determine if the drone had been used by the navy. She said that the drone was neither armed nor fitted with surveillance cameras.
More recent reports give more information on the drone. US embassy spokesperson, Tina Malone, released a statement saying: "The unarmed target drone that washed ashore off the coast of Masabate Island is an expended BQM-74E Aerial Target drone that was launched from the USS Chafee (DDG 90) during exercise Valiant Shield 2012 on Sept. 19, 2012 off the coast of Guam. It appears that ocean currents brought the drone to where it washed ashore last week off Masbate Island." An earlier version of events by the Philippine military claimed that the drone was launched outside the Philippines and veered off course before crashing into the Pacific. Col Amulio Burgos said: "It was not used in any exercise inside the Philippines" Burgos too emphasized that the drone was not a modern spy drone but an older aerial target model.
The US version of events has the drone being launched off Guam which is about 1500 miles from the Philippines. At first the drone was reported to have crashed in Philippine territorial waters but now that version has been retracted. The mystery is hardly solved by claiming the drone was launched near Guam, since it is not clear how the drone is able to float or fly the 1500 miles to the Philippines. There are other problems with the official version as well.
Burgos said that the drone had a US Agency for International Development logo on it. The USAID office in Manila has made no claim for the drone. Why would the US Navy use a USAID drone for target practice? Burgos also said that the US Embassy is only asking for more information about the drone which is still in custody of the Philippine Navy in Legazpi. The Philippine Dept. of Foreign Affairs stressed that the US Embassy has given assurances that the drone was used for target practice and was not armed or used for surveillance.
Yet initial reports give a different description of the drone. Captain Galan, deputy commander of naval forces in the area told AFP: "It appears to have been floating for quite some time. We will first study this drone but initially it appears to be a UAV used largely in reconnaissance."
The drone is a model BQM-74E Chukar III manufactured in the US by Northrup Grumman Corporation. It is normally used in reconnaissance missions by the US military. So it is capable of reconnaissance and was normally used for that purpose. But that is only part of the story.
The US has been training the Philippine military to use these types of drones against Muslim rebels in the south according to US and Philippine officials. Last year in an interview with the AFP, the Philippine Presidentadmitted that the Philippines has been allowing US drones to overfly its territory for reconnaissance flights but were not allowed to make strikes. The Masbate area is one where Maoist rebels are active (NPA). The drone could have very well been used for surveillance of rebel activity.
Activist group Bayan has complained about the activity: “The unrestricted use of US drones in PH airspace is a violation of our national sovereignty. No sovereign nation would allow a foreign power unhampered use of domestic airspace. Do you think the US will allow the Philippines the same privilege in US airspace?”
In March Rappler reported that US smart bombs delivered by a Scan Eagle drone were used in an attack on February 2nd against terrorists on Philippine territory. The Rappler maintains that the raid resulted from 15 months of training and technology transfer from the US to Filipino forces under a new aid program to combat terrorism approved in 2010. Perhaps the USAID logo on the drone is there because the drone is part of that program. However, everyone wants to keep the program under wraps. It might cause opposition politicians to raise questions. Better the drone float 1500 miles from Guam. About 600 US forces rotate in the Southern Philippines since 2002 as part of the global war on terror.