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The Philippines And Russia Are Slowly Becoming Allies

June 12, 2018

The Admiral Tributs. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week Russia’s defense ministry announced “an unofficial visit” by warships of the Pacific Fleet. These comprised two Udaloy-class anti-submarine warfare destroyers, the Admiral Tributs and the Admiral Vinogradov, and a “mid-size sea tanker” that arrived on June 9, a Saturday. This is the latest proof of improving relations between Manila and Moscow ever since President Duterte steered the Philippines’ toward China and Russia’s “ideological flow” in 2016.

The Cold War vintage Admiral Tributs already visited Manila in December last year. This came after the October 2017 visit by Russian vessels to deliver a large batch of assault rifles and 20 trucks personally received by Duterte. The Philippines’ own defense minister subsequently singed a contract for RPG rocket launchers.

The trio of ships from the Pacific Fleet are staying in Philippine waters until June 14. Their presence might be encouraging but a firm alliance between the Philippines and Russia remains a work in progress. Aside from positive signals and the occasional meeting, there isn’t a lot Manila and Moscow have been up to. Other ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Myanmar are actually spending billions on Russian arms–the Philippines isn’t. Even the current modernization plans for the armed forces has little to offer Russian suppliers.

According to the Department of National Defense (DND), however, the Philippine Navy (PN) could seek assistance from Russia with finding a cost-effective diesel-electric submarine. On June 11 Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that a diesel-electric submarine was a priority for “Third Horizon,” which is the last phase of the armed forces’ broad modernization plan.

The timeline for Third Horizon is from 2023 to 2028 or the administration that comes after Duterte’s.

Lorenzana justified the acquisition of submarines as a means to keep up with regional navies such as Indonesia and Vietnam, two countries that bought submarines abroad for their respective navies. Lorenzana also mentioned Russia and South Korea as potential suppliers in the Third Horizon because it will take years for a submarine, once ordered, to be completed. Russia and South Korea do offer diesel-electric submarines for export.

Russia has the new Lada-class submarines that are suited for intercepting foreign vessels and guarding maritime territory. Each Lada-class hull can be armed with both cruise missiles and conventional torpedoes. Adopting a Russian submarine–or perhaps two of them–poses a challenge for the PN, since the doctrine and training needs to be done with foreign assistance at a time when Chinese encroachment is threatening war. Another problem is cost because the navy will require a “bespoke” hull with its own complement of weapons that add to the total price.

Sailing Russian-made submarines should form a cornerstone in Manila-Moscow relations. One that can lead to even greater collaborative endeavors in the coming decades.

Aside from Russia, Lorenzana mentioned South Korea as a possible supplier and this brings the Chang Bogo-class into focus. This decade has seen an outpouring of goodwill between Manila and Seoul; much of the Philippine military’s newest equipment are from South Korea’s vast military exports catalog. The army, for example, fight with South Korean machine guns and deploy in South Korean trucks. The air force have a prized squadron of FA-50 multirole fighters. The navy’s largest ships are Indonesian-made LPD’s based on a South Korean design and its two upcoming frigates were built in a South Korean shipyard.

If the PN chose the Chang Bogo-class this bodes well for bilateral ties and could turn out cheaper in the long run. Unlike the two frigates it’s expecting in 2019 and 2020, the PN may insist on third party suppliers for specific parts and, should the need arise, have modifications done so its new submarines carry anti-ship missiles.

It’s unfortunate the Philippine government can be stingy to a fault. When the time comes for the PN to choose its submarines, the annual defense budget must be higher than it currently is.

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