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The Philippine Military Is No Longer Obsolete

November 13, 2022
BrahMos cruise missiles in their transporters for Republic Day parade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to a carefully planned, albeit slow and tedious, modernization program the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) overturned 30 years of decline and rebuilt its arsenal. In 2021 the Department of National Defense (DND) announced it was finalizing discussions with BrahMos Aerospace for the acquisition of its famous supersonic cruise missiles. The AFP’s decision to purchase the missiles goes back years, as early as 2012 when modernization plans were outlined, and by 2016 the air force and navy had determined the cost-effectiveness of the acquisition. However, it wasn’t until the very last day of 2021 when the DND confirmed it awarded a contract worth $374,962,800 to BrahMos Aerospace for the supply of three batteries, each with three launchers.

The export of Indian-made BrahMos cruise missiles had historic value for either party. From the perspective of the manufacturer BrahMos Aerospace it finally broke into the ASEAN market–the 10 country regional bloc is seen as a potential hedge against China’s growing economic and military power. By extension it reflected well on India’s own efforts to grab its slice of global “defense” exports that can improve the country’s industrial base and inflate national prestige. As for the DND, once the acquisition contract was signed on January 28 this year, it marked the most sophisticated arms deal it ever transacted that didn’t originate from the US. BrahMos cruise missiles remain the best option available for shore-based defenses as the alternatives to choose from are less capable.

But the background details are always worth examining. The BrahMos is probably the most famous conventional missile type in Asia because of its performance characteristics. It’s the result of a Indian-Russian joint venture from the late 1990s whose goal was developing a localized equivalent to the P-800 Oniks. Since then the BrahMos has evolved into a universal weapon system that can be adapted for any type of transport and launch, including on small watercraft. Each BrahMos missile is powered by a ramjet engine fixed at the front of the airframe, giving it in-flight speed that accelerates to thrice the speed of sound or Mach 3, and the manufacturer is still tinkering with improvements. In 2022 the BrahMos achieved an effective range of 500 km that’s beyond the MTCR-compliant restrictions on such missiles. (According to the MTCR any large caliber tactical missile should be effective within a 250 to 300 km envelope.)

As for the Philippine Navy the acquisition is a long-sought after asset that doesn’t come with a steep price. It was clarified that only three batteries of road mobile launchers are being delivered with full logistical and technical support from BrahMos Aerospace. On June 24 the navy sent its marines off for training in India. These are the men and women who will form the BrahMos Shore-based Anti-Ship Missile (SBASM) battalion. So far the navy have benefited the most from the modernization of the armed forces. It now operates a brand new fleet of surface vessels with the most advanced weaponry among all the branches; the Philippine Marines fall under the navy. The SBASM, however, should be understood as a deterrent versus perceived maritime threats on the country’s shores. It’s not designed or intended for potential hostilities against neighbors. The defense of the Philippines’ nearby waters and coastline is a monumental task that will stretch decades and the sole SBASM battalion protects economically important regions such as central and southern Luzon.

The total cost to build up the SBASM battalion is a boon for India’s value proposition as a “defense” exporter. Spending $374,962,800 for a battery of supersonic cruise missiles is far more attractive than the eye-watering valuations for Western combat aircraft. When the Philippine Air Force’s bid to purchase a dozen multirole fighters was approved by the US government in 2021 the allowed sale of 12 F-16C/D’s along with their munitions and spare parts reached $2.43 billion. The amount is unacceptable because the annual budget for the entire armed forces never rises beyond 1% of the country’s nominal GDP. For the sake of comparison, spending as much as $2.43 billion for BrahMos cruise missiles gets six operational battalions that defend all the country’s water passages, critical infrastructure, and largest cities. Yet the long-term beneficiary of this arms deal is India, with Delhi and Manila now allies, and its domestic military-industrial sector achieved a minor success to build on with an immense catalog it can sell everywhere.

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