Asia Defense | Security | Southeast Asia

The Philippine Navy Needs More Than New Ships

Until its institutional problems are solved, the PN will not be able to achieve its ambitious goals.

By Jay Tristan Tarriela for
The Philippine Navy Needs More Than New Ships
Credit: Facebook/ Philippine Navy

In his speech as the new flag officer in command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy (PN), Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo highlighted the three priority programs under his administration: boost the capacity of the Naval Sea Systems Command, implement skills specialization for its personnel; and “modernize the mindsets” of every sailor and marine. Indeed, these are remarkable concerns that the Navy has to undertake in its quest to be a formidable force in defending Philippine sovereignty. However, it is essential to emphasize that the PN has underlying institutional issues that continually challenge and disrupt the various programs of whoever is at the helm. Thus, one could argue that settling these lingering matters may be the best approach for the new FOIC; otherwise, his plans will never be realized.

The most intriguing piece of unfinished business is the attempt to separate the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) under its organizational supervision. The Senate Bill 1731 of Senator Juan Edgardo Angara and the House Bill 7304 of Congressman Rodolfo Fariñas both stressed the importance of a rapidly deployable amphibious maneuver force to an archipelagic country like the Philippines. These bills emphasized that the current existence of the PMC needs to be institutionalized by the passage of its own charter, which would categorize it as the fourth branch of service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Second, though the Strategic Sail Plan 2020 vision of the PN states that “it will be a strong and credible Navy that the Philippine nation can be proud of by 2020,” it will take more than replacing antiquated equipment to achieve that goal. The PN is still preoccupied with performing maritime law enforcement roles and other constabulary functions, including supporting the AFP’s internal security operations. Although it is necessary for the military to address domestic threats as well, it is worth accentuating that the long history of insurgency in the Philippines has hampered the PN’s development as a potent naval force strategically.

Lastly, the PN’s constabulary roles hinder collaboration with other law enforcement and regulating institutions. The Navy lacks a concrete mandate to validate its law enforcement activities, which makes it impossible to coordinate with other maritime law enforcement agencies like the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Philippine National Police Maritime Group (PNP-MG). Since these agencies recognize that the fundamental role of the PN is territorial defense and they have the mandate to carry out law enforcement, they wonder why gray ships are also engaged in such operations.

These three issues – the organizational dilemma, ambiguous mandates, and “turf wars” – could all be adequately addressed by an enacted law. Surprisingly, the PN, despite its long history, has never had an enabling law enacted by Congress. Most of the country’s current naval officers assume that the 1987 Philippine Constitution and the National Defense Act of 1935 (Commonwealth Act No. 1) distinctly defined the PN’s existence.  In scrutinizing these legal instruments, however, it is apparent that there are no provisions mentioning the creation of the PN and even its mandates.

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The first time a naval force was mentioned in Philippine laws was 1947’s Executive Order 94, signed by President Manuel Roxas when he reorganized the government. The Philippine Naval Patrol was created as a successor of the offshore patrol and was considered as one of the major commands of the regular force of the AFP. Subsequently, Executive Order 389, issued in 1950 during  the administration of President Elpidio Quirino, became the reference for the PN’s official title. This was also the first time that the Navy’s functions were clearly defined. Since then, until the fall of Marcos in 1986, the PN continuously existed and performed these mandates by merely referring to this EO. However, when the new constitution was crafted in 1987, and Executive Order 292 or the Administrative Code of the Philippines was promulgated, the PN’s mandates shifted to the provisions laid out by the latter.

Accordingly, the PN’s law enforcement mission as stipulated in EO 292 became its justification for carrying out constabulary functions related to navigation, the safety of life at sea, immigration, customs revenues, narcotics, quarantine, and even fishing. Nevertheless, since EO 292 was enforced over three decades ago, new laws were enacted by Congress that apparently repealed these functions: the Domestic Shipping Act, PCG Law, Quarantine Act, Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, and the Fishery Code of the Philippines, among others.

In retrospect, it is about time for the PN to have enabling law that defines its institutional structure and roles. If the PN fails to secure a law to establish its organization, perchance it will not just be the Marines that attempt to separate from the Navy’s hierarchy of command. Moreover, we no longer live in an era when brute force and offensive military action can justify why the military is still performing constabulary roles. The lack of a relevant charter allows the Navy to tread in the gray area, where there is no clear delineation between law enforcement and military operations.

A more formal charter would allow the Navy to set its annual budget percentage and even its modernization programs without actually waiting on the affirmation of the Army-dominated AFP leadership. It is common knowledge that the priority of funding has always been given to the Army. This was justified by the continuous counterinsurgency efforts and the emergence of terrorism in Mindanao. The collective setting of the military has made it difficult for the PN to massively recruit personnel since the Army’s soldiers remain a priority.

Without a dedicated law for the Navy, it will continuously struggle as an institution and will never be able to grow independently as a formidable force. It is not just “resource competition” with the Philippine Army that the PN has to grapple with, but most importantly, it has to fight for strategic relevance with other agencies backed by Congressional mandates to carry out constabulary roles.

This article first appeared in Analyzing War and is republished here with permission.

Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander and is currently a Ph.D. candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu.