The Philippines’ Navy Challenge
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

The Philippines’ Navy Challenge


This month, the Philippine Navy deployed its latest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The vessel is a 46-year-old former U.S. Coast Guard cutter and, amidst the fanfare since Manila first acquired the vessel, the Benigno Aquino administration has also announced its intention to bolster the country’s maritime security capabilities.

The move seems aimed squarely at responding to ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, where increased Chinese assertiveness in disputed waters has prompted the Philippine government to vow to modernize its armed forces, particularly its navy. These tensions have spiked this year as Chinese vessels have harassed other ships in the region, including in March the Philippine government oil exploration vessel MV Venture off Reed Bank in the Spratlys.

The Reed Bank incident was closely followed by alleged Chinese aerial intrusions over Philippine-held territory in the Spratlys in May and June; during one such incident, a Chinese military plane was claimed to have buzzed and intimidated a Philippine fishing vessel operating in the area.

While military activities have since subsided, intrusions by Chinese fishermen have continued. In October, a Chinese fishing vessel was confronted by a Philippine Navy warship in waters off the Philippine-held Recto Bank in the Spratlys, upon which the Chinese vessel hastily released more than thirty dinghies it was then towing. This sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity in which Beijing curtly demanded Manila return the impounded dinghies.

With such activities in mind,Aquino has underscored his administration’s determination to bolster the capabilities of the armed forces to deal with external security threats. In public, of course, the Aquino administration has shied from openly fingering China as the primary motivation for its planned modernization. But under a 40 billion peso, five-year plan, the Philippine Navy is expected to see its share of the spending pie increase significantly.

Top of the wish list has been the acquisition of patrol cutters from Washington. Following the acquisition of the BRP Gregorio de Pilar, Manila is tipped to receive a second similar ship, and possibly a third, by early next year. There have also been plans for the Navy is to take delivery of a single locally-built landing craft and three multi-purpose fast attack craft (gun-armed). In addition, the three existing Jacinto class patrol vessels bought from the British in the 1990s have recently been sent for upgrades.

Still, despite its aspirations and its five-year plan, the Philippine Navy is high on ambitions, but likely low on the funding necessary to fully satisfy its wish list. At present, the Navy acquisitions are mainly funded by proceeds from the Malampaya offshore gas field operation, although if there’s a steady revenue stream from this and other planned offshore oil and gas sites the acquisitions may yet be realized.

The problem for the Aquino administration, though, is that it’s not just about the money. Of course, the Aquino government has taken a much more proactive stance in response to the perceived increase in Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In September, for example, Aquino issued Executive Order Number 57, an official policy that emphasizes maritime security. However, this approach isn’t fully endorsed by the armed forces, nor by some vocal lawmakers who continue to tout internal security as the most pertinent issue the military faces.

The lack of policy consensus within the Philippine government is a problem that has long plagued the country’s military modernization plans, which for decades have seemed to favor internal security advocates. Recent unrest in the restive southern Philippines may give this camp even more ammunition.

To compound matters, many within the defense and diplomatic establishments have opposed the beefing up of the Navy to safeguard the country’s South China Sea maritime interests, pointing out repeatedly that the Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington ensures the external security of the Philippines. As a result, there has been relatively little effort to revive interest in substantially overhauling the Navy’s capacity to address Philippine concerns in the region.

Indeed, the Army still enjoys the lion’s share of defense appropriations, reflecting the continued focus on internal security. The acquisition of the Gregorio del Pilar does little to change this, and although the vessel’s freshly-applied gray paint may disguise its age, this ageing warship can’t hide the fact that parts of the Philippine Navy are doing little more than rusting.

One of the problemsManila’s maritime security planning has faced is that it has tended to be reactive. Until the Mischief Reef incident in 1995, the Philippine government had adopted a rather ambivalent attitude towards maritime security, with the Navy accorded the lowest priority for funding.

But when the Chinese presence was discovered on Mischief Reef, the Ramos administration was galvanized to modernize the Navy, including the acquisition of better-equipped warships to provide a more credible deterrent against further Chinese transgressions in the Spratlys. Yet even then, the modernization plan was only implemented partially.

Modest armament plans, such as the acquisition of a quartet of missile-armed attack craft from Spain, came to nothing, as did last-ditch alternatives such as acquiring surplus Tarantul class missile craft from Russia. As a result, after much hype about the Philippine Navy finally seeing an end to decades of neglect, little came of Ramos’ plans. In contrast, the Philippine Coastguard has entered the fray in competing for scarce resources and has actually met with some success, thanks in part to funding from the Australian government.

As a result of the continued lack of neglect, the Philippine Navy has found itself virtually helpless in response to Chinese incursions. In June 1999, the BRP Sierra Madre ran aground in the Spratlys, and was then harassed by a pair of armed Chinese ships before a recovery operation was undertaken.

As some within the Philippine military have pointed out, while it takes years to build up a credible defense capacity, a crisis in the South China Sea could literally happen overnight. Yet without the requisite military capacity in place, there’s virtually nothing that the Philippines could do short of provoking war. Whether the Aquino administration has the stomach to tackle the challenge of bolstering the country’s maritime security remains to be seen.


Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in the Nanyang Technological University. 

February 13, 2013 at 14:13

I also want to call all the likes of you to wake up to the modern world and start reading true blue history books not that of just invented/adulterated/fake ones.  We wish all cavemen walk out of their caves and explore the real truth and nothing but the truth and just because their paid .50 (whatever currency) they would sell their dignity to the CCP

February 13, 2013 at 14:09

Yup we already did and you didn't turn up at the UN tribunal.  What's a matter some lack of evidence or too much fabricated cr*p.

March 2, 2012 at 18:25

chineese people and specially your ambitious government was on tract on asserting claims on what we called South china sea? your goverment must respect the international law of the sea. Your country doesnt have any rights on its claims,your reffering an old history and old map doent even grant you that you own the whole Spratly island.your country are very far behind in the area which your country claiming as one of yours. chineese goverment are so greedy that they intimidate its nieghboring countries with its military arsenal.making your country a full of liar,terms of dirty tactics,bullying other that what you can do?maybe china has a large mass population and your military growth and technologys emerging but when your country will not respect the international law of the sea your country will be pulburized when each country will arise from your visciousness.remember every people and every people in each country has an eyes so if you persist your motives and other interest and invade any country without any proper basis.even your strong military will be wipe out in time.

February 29, 2012 at 17:24

Chinese fishermen are thieves. Their disrespect of other weaker nations has caused problems all around the world. The Somali pirate problem has important roots in the Chinese illegal dumping of toxic chemicals and illegal fishing that pushed the fishermen into being pirates out of hunger and desperation. I personally refuse to buy any Chinese seafood and dairy products (but that’s a story in its own)

Asiong Salonga
February 23, 2012 at 09:20

@FromAsia : no your not, you’re generalizing.

February 1, 2012 at 02:32

Invade Phillipine ? Come on, you must be kidding ! with your S.W.A.T., who need to ?!……am i not right ?

Acadiana Pirate
January 21, 2012 at 15:36

No matter what happens in West Philippine Sea, China will never invade the Philippines. It’s all intimidation, bullying, scare tactics, and sometimes stealing an island like in 1995 when they simply made a reason that it was just building a fisherman’s shed in Mischief Reef. What a big liar! They will not test the Mutual Defense Treaty of US/Philippines. They know that USA will not allow it, ASEAN will not allow it, Australia and Japan will not allow it. Even the EU wants to get in the mix by asking the Philippines if it needs to solve the Spratly problem also. The last thing that China wants is this whole mess goes to the UN for the body to decide. They know they don’t have a leg to stand on so they resort of bullying tactics.
I’ve seen the blogs all over regarding this issue because the Chinese people laugh at the peace loving Filipinos regarding the lack of military assets to counter them but what the Filipinos can only do if their backs are against the wall and China invades the Philippines is that the 15 million Filipinos worldwide can inflict commercial damage on all Chinese businesses. This is more painful than confronting them tit for tat militarily. We are the only country in the world who is capable of doing this.
Just for starters, when China announced that they were towing an oil rig to the South China Sea last July, Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Canadians rallied in every consulate all over North America. Guess what, until now we don’t see the oil rig no where. They were led by Loida Lewis who is a billionaire in the US and France and is willing to confront the Chinese to stop their bullying tactics.

lee c
January 20, 2012 at 15:49

Love all the chinese chest thumping. Still cant hide the fact. Your country is a 3rd rate power

With a proto navy thats about competent as a somalie pirate.

Fact is you over reached and got punched in the face. United states and destroy china 10 times

Without adversly effecting daily life.

Your aircraft carrier is a floating pile. No escourt or carrier defense. The bow is curve so aircraft

Cant carry much arament.

As allways all bark no teeth. Those subs vietnamies just purchased for the fraction of your carrier

Can probly destroy half your navy.

January 3, 2012 at 19:50

If our Politicians stop stealing from our coffers we might just have the cash to buy equipment. Sadly, it has always been “Ako muna bago ang Bayan”.

January 3, 2012 at 19:48

He is fabricating his history also. Yes we did try to fight American Colonialism during 1898-1901 during the first republic. Again it is not Millions but thousands that died because of the conflict.

America and the Philippines has passed that.

January 3, 2012 at 19:43

Really? Filipinos are one and the Sultan of Sulu has pledge its allegiance to the Republic. So, uh…. Can you return Tibet now? Manchu? Mongolia? How bout the Uighur? I do think they deserve their old lands as what you are advocating right?

January 3, 2012 at 19:40

Are you kidding me? We have always been a sovereign nation and it just is that our interest with the United States are intertwined. We are Treaty Defense Allies so if you talk about war talk about the United States, so yeah China can relatively demolish our PN(Philippine Navy) and PAF (Philippine Air Force) but can it really easily defeat our PA (Philippine Army)?

United States has more then enough firepower to annihilate China. Japan is a treaty ally of the United States also that means two fronts against China. Vietnam appears to be ready enough when an opportunity presents itself. Do you think the Uighur’s would really just sit back and not take advantage of the Chaos? Tibet?

No China should realize how STUPID it is to attack the Philippines it is only asking for its end. Remember Philippine Army is one of the most experienced Army in the world, it has proven itself very efficient in Jungle Warfare and Guerrilla Warfare. How will China cope with a war of attrition?

January 3, 2012 at 19:30

China’s EEZ? Seriously? I’m loling so hard right now.

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