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Philippine Naval Weakness Hampers Response to South China Sea Award

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • July 19, 2016

    The July 12, 2016 award in the South China Sea Arbitration, which should have sparked elation in the Philippines, was greeted with a sombre, cautious and muted reaction, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. calling for "restraint and sobriety". It was impossible to imagine a more decisive legal victory for the Philippines, as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) delivered favourable findings in respect of all the rulings sought by the country.1 Despite this, the reaction of the Philippines government was unexpectedly cautious. This response may in part be the result of the extreme weakness of the Philippine Navy relative to the other navies of the region and certainly compared with the large and well-equipped Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea. Even compared to the other nations with claims in the South China Sea, such as Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, which have small but modern surface fleets, the Philippine Navy is remarkably poorly equipped and its ageing vessels compare most unfavourably.2

    At the outset, it must be noted that most of the maritime encounters in the South China Sea take place between unarmed or lightly armed Coast Guard/ Maritime Surveillance vessels (so-called “white hulls”) with armed naval vessels rarely confronting each other. The Philippine Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) service have confronted each other, as during the April 2012 incident when three CMS vessels faced the 12-year old 55-metre BRP Pampanga.3 However, the availability of capable naval assets is of importance as they provide a potential deterrent against escalation as well as manifesting the ability of a state to enforce its jurisdiction and sovereignty over a given area.

    The weakness of the Philippine Navy is perhaps less surprising than it might appear at first glance. For decades, the Philippines sought comfort in the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States which took effect in 1952. This treaty, at Articles IV and V, states the following:4

    ARTICLE IV. Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.

    Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

    ARTICLE V. For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

    In effect, this has given the Philippines the comfort that the United States would come to its assistance in the event of an attack on its territories or its military or civilian shipping and aircraft. This has resulted in the Philippines armed forces being minimally equipped to defend the interests and territorial integrity of the country. While there was some force build-up during the Presidency of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), this was primarily aimed towards counter-insurgency (COIN) operations against the Moro insurgency, with the army and air force receiving priority.5

    The Philippines has, in recent times, made half-hearted efforts to modernize its armed forces – air, land and sea. Through Republic Act No. 7898 of February 23, 1995, An Act Providing for the Modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and for Other Purposes, the Philippines has statutorily committed itself to the modernization of its armed forces to fulfil certain defined objectives:6

    1. To develop its capability to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and to secure the national territory from all forms of intrusion and encroachment;
    2. To develop its capability to assist civilian agencies in the preservation of the national patrimony, including the country’s living and nonliving marine, submarine, mineral, forest and other natural resources located within its territory and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ);
    3. To enhance its capability to fulfill its mandate to protect the Philippine people not only from armed threats but from the ill effects of life-threatening and destructive consequences of natural and man-made disasters and calamities, including typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, major accidents in far-flung or inaccessible terrain or at sea and from all forms of ecological damage;
    4. To improve its capability to assist other agencies in the enforcement of domestic and foreign policies as well as international covenants against piracy, white slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, hijacking of aircraft and seacraft and the transport of toxic and other ecologically-harmful substances taking place in or through Philippine territory;
    5. To enhance its capability to assist the Philippine National Police in law enforcement and internal security operations;
    6. To enhance its capability to fulfill the country’s international commitments; and
    7. To develop its capability to support national development.

    This act expired in 2012, but the Government of President Benigno Aquino III amended the Act through Republic Act No. 10349 of December 11, 2012, An Act Amending Republic Act No. 7898. Establishing the Revised AFP Modernization Program and for Other Purposes,which specified that force modernisation was to be completed over a 15-year period.7 The government further provided a budget of 75 billion pesos for the first five years to fund force modernisation efforts.

    However, despite many efforts, the Philippines has made only modest progress in achieving its desired capabilities in respect of categories (a) and (b). The Philippine navy, in particular, has suffered from decades of neglect. Modernisation efforts over the last two decades have, at best, produced very limited results with the induction of many second-hand vessels which, while providing not insignificant patrol capability, have vested the navy with very limited combat capability. The major surface assets of the Philippine navy are listed below:

    Class Type Number of Ships Note
    Gregorio del Pilar class Frigate 2 Ex-US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters. A 3rd unit, the ex-USCGC Boutwell, is expected to join within the year.
    Datu Kalantiaw class Frigate 1 ex-USN Cannon-class destroyer escort
    Pohang class Corvette 1 ex-Republic of Korea Navy Pohang-class corvette provided to the Philippine Navy. Expected delivery by 2016.
    Emilio Jacinto class Corvette 3 ex-Royal Navy Peacock-class corvettes
    Rizal class Corvette 2 ex-USN Auk-class minesweepers
    Miguel Malvar class Corvette 6 ex-USN Admirable-class minesweeper, and PCE-842-class patrol craft and PCE(R)-848-class patrol craft.

    Sources: IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships 2013-2014, Philippines Navy, IHS Jane’s 360

    These vessels, as can be seen, are all second-hand procurements and the individual ships are relatively lightly armed compared to similar sized vessels in the region, none of them possessing either surface-to-surface or surface-to-air missiles and lacking anti-submarine detection and engagement systems. While these ships are augmented by a large force of 36 inshore patrol boats, the entire force is ageing – the most recently acquired frigate being over 40 years old and the Datu Kalantiaw class frigate Rajah Humabon was commissioned in 1943 as a US Navy destroyer-escort. Though augmented by a large force of 36 patrol boats, the Philippine Navy lacks the wherewithal to provide a deterrent to incursions into the country’s EEZ. The disparity in surface assets was graphically demonstrated on June 17, 2011 when the antiquated Rajah Humabon was dispatched to patrol Scarborough Shoal to confront China’s modern maritime surveillance ship, Haixun 31.8 In fact, it is a damning indictment of the failure of the Philippine navy modernisation plans that the Rajah Humabon was decommissioned in 1993 but recommissioned in 1996 owing to an acute shortage of surface assets. Similarly, in April 2012, during the Scarborough Shoal incident, the Philippines dispatched its most modern warship, Gregorio del Pilar,which was launched in 1965 for the United States Coast Guard.9 These ageing vessels have little combat capability and consequently a very limited ability to deter an adversary.

    Given its increasing tensions with China in the South China Sea, perhaps exacerbated by its success at the PCA, the need for Philippine naval modernization is acute. The Philippines has initiated procurement processes for three 17-metre multipurpose fast-attack craft and for two frigates. The former project is on track with a contract awarded to a joint venture of Philippine shipbuilder Propmech Corporation and Taiwanese builder Lung Teh Shipbuilding Co on February 5, 2016.10 The frigate contract is at an interesting stage where the lowest technically qualified bidder, Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) of India, is facing difficulties over its financial reserves which are necessary considering the peculiar payment plan stipulated by the Philippines.11 Of additional interest is the fact that the specifications for the frigates stipulate minimal missile armament and are more akin to an up-armed Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) rather than a full-fledged frigate.12 Nonetheless, these are steps in the right direction. However, the Philippines have a poor track record of timely and effective implementation of military modernisation plans. As the need for a modern and capable naval force grows ever more urgent, it remains to be seen if these latest plans will become a reality or be still-born as was the case with earlier efforts.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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