Features | Security | Southeast Asia

How the Philippine Army Can Find Its Place in the South China Sea

Manila can exact land-based ownership of the maritime domain with a smarter strategy.

By Mark Payumo for
How the Philippine Army Can Find Its Place in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Army HDR Photo by Spc. Michael G. Herrero/Released

Despite being consistently provided with the largest share of the defense budget, the Philippine Army has long been perceived as a land force that’s unaffected by what is taking place in the larger context of the Indo-Pacific security environment, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS). Nonetheless, the army may well be positioned now to finally prove its critics wrong. 

For the first time in nearly five decades since Project Santa Barbara, the Philippine military has become missile-capable following the acquisition and fielding of the navy’s brand-new guided-missile frigate and the air force’s fourth-generation FA/50 fighter aircraft. As the army activates new artillery batteries in anticipation of the delivery of the BrahMos cruise missile system, the K136 Kooryong multiple-launch rocket system, and the ATMOS self-propelled 155 mm artillery system, it marks the arrival of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on the foothills of attaining a minimum credible defense posture as a warfighting organization.

Weakest Link No More?

This appears to follow the pattern of what other Southeast Asian militaries have achieved in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore which can now pose a viable threat to a Chinese force attempting to take a stand in an area in the South China Sea. A deeper look further suggests commonalities in the areas of sea denial, air defense, and fourth-generation fighter aircraft (with the exception of Singapore, which will begin fielding fifth-generation F-35B stealth fighters by 2030) — precisely the capabilities that the AFP is now beginning to attain under Horizon 2 of its modernization program.

However, Beijing anticipates that the U.S. will intervene especially if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begins with the path of least resistance in the northeast quarter of the South China Sea, and attempts to seize Second Thomas Shoal while ejecting Philippine military and civilian presence from Thitu Island. But due to Washington’s long history of strategic ambiguity there is no shortage of labels within U.S. policy circles describing options how to optimize the lethality of the U.S. military vis-à-vis China’s anti-access, area denial weapon systems (A2/AD), which could be a way to find strategic alternatives that will bring American military might to bear in an escalatory fashion while buying precious time for a surge.

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Some of the prominent policy options are active denial, blue A2/AD, and archipelagic defense that share two features: uncertainty in the use of nuclear weapons and burden sharing through non-exclusive coalition building in Asia. Recent developments appear to take a page from this playbook, beginning with the Quad, through which India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. are now aiming to formalize their security partnership. New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea are reportedly looking to get on board. Hearkening back to Abe Shinzo’s 2007 call to action for a “Confluence of the Two Seas,” the grouping is now poised to become openly anti-China as Britain, France, and Germany follow suit.

Militarily speaking, Vietnam and South Korea possess the hardware and training that complement what their geography can offer, making them worthy of such level of participation in shaping regional stability and security. Hence, given China’s own struggle with the tyranny of distance even within the South China Sea, the Philippines is in a similar position only if it reconsiders its options amid a tight defense budget by optimizing its capability upgrades through the provision of equal if not preferential funding for land-based A2/AD systems.

But these are hard times, which will find the navy and air force hard-pressed to make their case before Congress owing to their power projection-heavy acquisitions (which double as A2/AD but under threat by Chinese submarines and stealth aircraft) that are expensive and occasionally lend themselves to costly political balancing. The pair of newly acquired frigates, for example, cost $337 million and the navy needs four more along with 12 corvettes, 18 offshore patrol vessels, three submarines, and three mine countermeasure vessels.

Land-Based Ownership of the Sea

A minimum credible defense posture must then be reoriented toward the realities of the current global economic slowdown while maintaining the centrality of military modernization despite competing priorities from public health concerns due to the coronavirus. This can be achieved via minimum credible A2/AD (MC-A2/AD), which imposes costs on the PLAN presence in the South China Sea with minimal gas turbine propulsion and jet A-1 expenditures. According to a 2016 study, A2/AD capability is about one-fiftieth of the cost of power-projection capability that it could neutralize in a war. China’s neighbors, the Philippines included, can therefore hold PLAN platforms and assets at risk at a fraction of the cost simply by stocking up on A2/AD-oriented systems and weaponry.

For example, Poland’s acquisition of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to improve its surface-to-surface capabilities against Russia was probably met with a cold shoulder from the AFP in order to put a balance with the navy’s frigates and the air force’s SPYDER self-propelled surface-to-air missile system from Israel. But with talks with the U.S. already underway and the navy and air force satisfying some of the preliminary stages in their desired force mix, the army should prefer HIMARS due to its affordability — only 1.2 times more expensive to buy 18 launchers than purchasing two frigates — and the likelihood that the BrahMos missile technology had already been leaked to the Chinese. HIMARS is mobile and designed to engage and defeat Chinese artillery and air defense concentrations while moving away to avoid PLA forces trying to locate its launch site.

Implementing MC-A2/AD

But what exactly does MC-A2/AD look like when implemented? The first order of business is to determine whether it will form part of minimum credible defense as a nested concept, or act as an interim replacement for the latter as the AFP gives way for the national economy to recover from the pandemic. Regardless of the two pathways, MC-A2/AD should remain integrated in Philippine military strategic thinking as an enduring contingency for any future disruption in the country’s national defense posture such as Asia’s propensity for a virus outbreak, economic slowdown, Haiyan-like super typhoon, volcanic eruption, or earthquake.

At the same time, MC-A2/AD’s foremost requirement is to unload the army of the internal security operation (ISO) burden in order to focus on upholding a rules-based regional order in the South China Sea. Given that the AFP had successfully transitioned ISO toward a predominantly political campaign by reducing the number of communist armed regulars by nearly 90 percent while keeping fighting at bay with Muslim secessionists through peace talks, the time is ripe for the Philippine National Police (PNP) to fully assume the conduct of ISO that will optimize its affinity with law enforcement and the justice system. 

It is common knowledge that the PNP is heavily militarized. It has a presence in every city and municipality and retains Regional Mobile Force Battalions as its infantry land force, the Special Action Force, plus a maritime group. From the army’s perspective, ISO are small-unit operations that used to be costly campaigns and no longer warrant an entire conventional force to prosecute. It is no small wonder that in 2013, the defense department reduced its six mission areas to four as the basis for its annual budget, which is likely in anticipation of this turnover. 

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Hence, the PNP can be supported by AFP special operations forces (SOF) and a small contingent of mobile artillery batteries when involved in relatively bigger armed clashes similar to Operation Exodus. Green Berets, in particular, can organize, train, and lead a battalion of law enforcers in the conduct of mass base operations to eliminate communist influence and high-value targets, while coast guard platforms can provide valuable maneuver from the sea. This approach can also be an extrapolation from Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines that kept the number of American special operations forces in the country well under 500.

While the army and air force might be central to MC-A2/AD, the navy is equally important for all three services to meet halfway in the unfortunate event of a tightening national budget. Aegis Ashore costs $745 million per site, preferably for the Luzon mainland, but it can be a cost-effective way to singularly channel funds from the modernization program that will boost interoperability with the U.S. under whose presence the AFP is still able to hold on to Thitu Island and the BRP Sierra Madre.

It behooves Manila to take advantage of Washington’s willingness to proliferate A2/AD assets in the Indo-Pacific, like hosting the deployment of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and probably attempt to restore $200 million in annual funds from Washington that can significantly write off a fraction of defense acquisition expenses. This might come in exchange for strategic concessions, but the $267.75 million in U.S. security assistance since 2016 for the procurement of weaponry that has been spread over a number of years is paltry by comparison.

Ultimately, the army’s main goal as a function of MC-A2/AD is to pepper the Philippines with relatively inexpensive A2/AD assets that are primarily oriented toward the country’s western seaboard. The peripheralized army combat engineers stand to be put to use with this posture as a function of the need for very deep magazines that will support MC-A2/AD systems in anticipation of large air and cruise missile raids by the Chinese. Military engineers will also have to start becoming involved in strategizing the construction and repair of main highways and thoroughfares in the country that could double as runways where the air force can take off and land. Taiwan can offer expertise in this realm given they took the world speed record for runway repair (three hours) in 2014 after beating Israel by an hour.

In line with this are the lessons of Bataan and Corregidor in repelling an amphibious and air attack, which are likely to be repeated for the Chinese to eliminate any further attempt to retake Philippine sovereign territory along the nine-dash line. This is not a remote possibility as illustrated by Mao’s “one and a half” wars thinking with India in 1962, the ambush of Russian soldiers along the Ussuri River, exacting bloody punishment on Vietnam in 1974, 1979, and 1988, and the deaths of 20 Indian troops in 2020 in Ladakh. Renaming undersea features in the Philippine Sea could also be a veiled prepositioning for more historical revisionism well into the future that could lead to a bloody conflict between Philippines and China.

If There’s a Will, There’s a Way

More than Pearl Harbor’s complacency and Douglas MacArthur’s indecisiveness when faced with the initial Japanese onslaught, Manila fell because of sparse and weak defenses that allowed the Japanese Imperial Army and Marines to land unopposed. But any level of acceptance in the AFP that the Philippines is indefensible should encourage a deeper study of Taiwan’s national security, why amphibious invasions — even one coming from China — are the most difficult in warfare, and how A2/AD capabilities can exact heavy losses on the Chinese military.

Moreover, China’s ability to counter the A2/AD capabilities of its Asian neighbors is receding with few prospects of catching up because of China’s economic slowdown, in progress even before the pandemic struck, while incurring massive debt as homeland security operations consume large shares of the Chinese military’s resources. It is now just a matter of choice for Manila and the AFP to recognize this advantage and put it into practice.

Mark Payumo is CEO of SWi Analytics, a military veteran-owned limited liability company in California. He is also the editor of Analyzing War.