Note (10-26-2013): The New York Times Magazine’s feature on the Philippines’ dispute with China, titled A Game of Shark And Minnow, perfectly explains how the South China Sea conflict has evolved. The parts depicting life aboard the derelict warship Sierra Madre are especially poignant, offering a rare glimpse into the Philippine military’s helplessness.
Amid the greater drama of international affairs, where the sundry and historic commingle to produce the ripples which shape personal lives, is the Philippines’ own drama over failing to protect its sovereignty.
After a tense standoff last year where it lost a disputed shoal to renewed Chinese claims over sea lanes it shares with its southern neighbors, the Philippines is again suffering the same humiliation.
Last week, a flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by an unidentified PLAN frigate and maritime patrol ships occupied the Ayungin shoal within Philippine territory. It no doubt vexed the country’s leadership, even more so Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who is struggling to upgrade the ill-equipped armed forces.
Rather than enforce its rights and deploy an appropriate naval response, the Philippine government filed a complaint to the Chinese embassy and invoked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which corresponded with public statements assuring citizens that national territory shall be preserved.
Easier said than done.
The reality is a lot more grim. Almost a week since the incident, whatever opposition the encroaching Chinese should face hasn’t materialized. The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard chose to observe them instead.
This is because the Philippines, a sprawling archipelago at the edge of Southeast Asia with a population more than 100 million strong, is defenseless.
The sorry state of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), whose main headquarters is located along one of the busiest highways in the capital Metro Manila, can be blamed on neglect, poor foresight, a minuscule budget, and government inertia.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, until 2010, Philippine annual defense spending was one of the lowest in the region at less than 1% of GDP. This averages at least a billion dollars per year.
While the AFP can count on a revived long-term modernization plan and frequent exercises with staunch ally the US, who used to operate massive bases in the main island of Luzon, the Philippine military is still in no shape to fulfill its constitutional role, that being:
Section 3. Civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State. Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory. (Emphasis by 21AAR)
Yet there is a silver lining. Since the beginning of the current Aquino administration (2010-2016), small steps have been taken to address the military’s limited abilities.
This year the Philippine Navy will receive another decommissioned US Coast Guard Hamilton class patrol vessel. The first arrived in 2011 and was renamed the BRP* Gregorio Del Pilar. The second is the upcoming BRP Ramon Alcaraz**. Both are equipped with 76mm Oto Melara main guns. While not warships, they represent the most formidable vessel available aside from a World War 2 era “flagship” and several smaller models better suited for patrols.
On Tuesday, May 21, President Aquino delivered a speech during the 115th anniversary of the Philippine Navy. It was a symbolic memorial that traces its beginning to the declaration of the First Republic in 1898, a republic subsequently crushed by American conquest.
To mark the occasion, President Aquino was in Fort San Felipe, a naval base, where he reassured his audience that modernization was a priority. “You can count on the government to match the service you render our country. Without a doubt: the time of giving in to foreign aggressors is over,” he said in Tagalog. News reports of the event mentioned the government will allocate $1.8 billion for the military’s needs.
It was unclear if the amount meant current spending, like for the AFP Modernization program and the Navy Sail Plan 2020, or a fresh injection of funds.
President Aquino did recite a grocery list of near-future acquisitions under the amended 2012 AFP Modernization Act. “We have all these projects lined up for the Navy,” the President told his audience. “Three Multi-Purpose Attack Craft or MPAC, eight amphibious assault vehicles, two frigates with anti-submarine helicopters, along with different kinds of helicopters to bolster the air group.”
“We will also include our communication, intelligence, and surveillance system,” he said.
* Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas/Ship of the Republic of the Philippines
** The BRP Ramon Alcaraz was officially received in the port of Subic on Tuesday, August 6, after a two-month voyage across the Pacific
Facing the Facts
The Philippines has no modern warships. By “modern” these are vessels which can deploy missiles, credible anti-submarine warfare systems, and engage both aircraft and enemy vessels.
In lieu of modern warships, the Philippine Navy uses a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter, patrol vessels, and amphibious transports like the locally produced BRP Tagbanua. Several months ago the Department of National Defense (DND) mulled purchasing two modern frigates like the Italian Maestrale but changed its mind for lack of a sufficient budget.
The Philippine Air Force is just as penurious. It no longer possesses combat aircraft for want of spare parts. While it does have OV-10 Bronco’s and MD-500 helicopters for close air support, there is nothing in its current inventory suited for patrolling national airspace.
Rather than refurbish its F-5 fighter squadrons, negotiations are underway with South Korea for a dozen T-50 Golden Eagle trainer aircraft.
To catch a glimpse of the historic and more capable Philippine Air Force, the eager enthusiast should visit Clark, in Pampanga province, where decommissioned planes are found in the Air Force Park.
The Air Force at least succeeded in maintaining its three C-130 transports. But the once vast fleet of UH-1H helicopters are now only 16 strong. Eight brand new PZL W-3 Sokol helicopters from Poland were delivered between 2012-early 2013 to fill in the gap.
Any credible air defense system is unavailable.
The Philippine Army are only suited for protracted counterinsurgency campaigns. Their weapons and equipment, while effective for ongoing missions, are typical among ground forces of developing countries.
Although the Marines operate large amphibious tanks, armored vehicles are a combination of the locally produced Simba, the V-150, the ubiquitous M113 APC, and a few LAV-25’s. (On September, they received six riverine patrol boats from the US Embassy.)
No long range artillery is in use.+
In short, despite small-scale improvements, the AFP lacks everything.
This is why the Philippines is defenseless.
It takes a slight revision of a quote once uttered by Muhammad Ali-Jinnah to drive home an important lesson for the Philippines:
“A country without a strong defense is at the mercy of any aggressor.”
Note (6-1-2013): To clarify, on May 21st at least three vessels of China’s Maritime Patrol were spotted in Ayungin shoal while further activity was reported in other sensitive locations, such as Mischief reef. To date it’s unclear if more Chinese ships are at Ayungin, though a minor news item claims multiple fishing vessels were recently there.
+ (8-3-2013) The Philippine Army does possess a small number of 155mm towed artillery pieces bought from Israel almost 30 years ago.