Fire in the City: The Failure of Military Airstrikes in Marawi
THE BURNING of Marawi City may have been a case of the military shooting itself in the foot as misfires caused significant loss of fighting men.
On May 31, media reported that an SF-260 aircraft targeting areas held by the Maute Group dropped the bomb instead on the location of military troops, who were engaged in close-range combat with the extremists at the time. The “friendly fire” killed ten soldiers and wounded seven more. The military immediately suspended the operations of the said aircraft.
The AFP’s internal Board of Inquiry promptly conducted a fact-finding probe and submitted their report to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Gen. Eduardo Año. While the findings are not yet public knowledge, AFP Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla in a June 14 interview in ANC’s Headstart said that there might have been “lapses” in coordination with ground troops and in the use of assets.
In less than two weeks, on July 13, a second “lapse” killed two soldiers and wounded 11 when one of the four non-guided bombs, this time dropped by an FA-50 fighter jet, missed its target by 250 meters. Investigating the cause of the incident, the AFP suspended airstrikes using the FA-50 jets.
CMFR cheers TV5’s primetime and late night news programs, Aksyon and Aksyon Tonite, for going further than just providing accounts of the above misfires to explain the capacity of the military’s fighter aircrafts, as well as the possible causes of airstrike failure. In the “explainer” segments, the two programs noted that the FA-50 aircrafts are the most advanced of the T-50 fighter jet family manufactured in South Korea. It can move four times faster than the SF-260, a speed that challenges the pilot’s capacity to aim the bombs accurately at his target.
Aksyon Tonite’s Ed Lingao enumerated factors affecting the conduct of airstrikes in the context of AFP operations, and explained the challenges faced by the pilots, including the lack of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), forcing them to use general-purpose or “dumb” bombs.
Lingao also noted that military has had limited experience with airstrikes on urban areas, as these had been previously conducted by the AFP over forests and vast plains. The close-range combat with the Maute was also made more difficult by the density of structures in Marawi City.
Aksyon’s Lourd de Veyra, citing The Oxford Companion to Military History, included causes of “friendly fire” such as equipment defect, lack of coordination between airborne and ground troops, and hasty attacks. He also explained the use of the term “fog of war,” which refers to the military’s uncertainty about their adversary’s capabilities, and even their own. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said that ill-fated strikes can happen “in the fog of war” – but his use suggested a more simple meaning to the layman, who would have understood this as the confusion that arises from the conditions of combat.
These efforts to break away from the official military briefings are necessary. The reports were straightforward and did not disparage the armed forces. Rather these informed the public about fundamental questions that confront the leadership of the country that forces a realistic assessment of the military strategy in this instance. The TV5 reports call the public’s attention to the difficulties in the battlefield, and ask for a review of the battle plan. The mandate after all is for the armed forces to defend the people against the enemy while ensuring minimal harm to soldiers and civilians alike.