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A Paradigm Shift in the Philippines’ Defense Strategy

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A Paradigm Shift in the Philippines’ Defense Strategy

The country’s new Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept is part of a gradual reorientation from an internal to an external security focus.

A Paradigm Shift in the Philippines’ Defense Strategy

Military officers salute during a ceremony in Pasay City, Philippines, March 19, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Armed Forces of the Philippines

The Philippine Department of National Defense recently announced the adoption of a new defense concept, the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept (CADC). This is a welcome development for those who have been advocating for a paradigm shift in the country’s defense strategy. While conversations about the shift from an internal security focus to a more outward security orientation of the military have been going on for years, and previous administrations released pronouncements hinting at such a shift, this remained an aspiration rather than an actual policy.

The strategies and programs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continued to reflect the priority given to internal security operations over defending the state against external threats. Although the military often justified such programming as benefiting both internal and external security operations, the overall strategy and psyche remained largely inward-looking, never fully satisfying the requirements for a military capable of deterring and defending the state from foreign threats.

Despite these shortcomings, certain elements in the AFP have tried to influence the defense and military strategies to reflect the importance of defending the country at and from the sea. In 2013, the Philippine Navy came up with the Active Archipelagic Defense Strategy (AADS), which articulated how the navy could be best utilized by Unified Commands, the Philippine military’s force employers, in joint, interagency, and combined operations. The AADS also forms part of the basis for the Navy’s overall capability development program.

The AADS was a significant contribution in supporting the paradigm shift in military strategy and planning. In 2021, the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) published its updated marine operating concept called “Archipelagic Coastal Defense,” which emphasized the importance of securing key maritime terrain and coastal areas. Similar to the AADS, the ACD concept is intended to be applied in joint, interagency, and combined operations and has guided the capability development of the PMC. These service-level initiatives arguably have influenced higher-level policies and strategies in the years following their release and could have been the basis for the recently announced CADC.

Now that the Philippine defense leadership has adopted a more outward-looking defense strategy, there is more opportunity to strengthen the AFP’s ability to undertake joint external security operations. The integration of land, air, and naval capabilities for defense under the CADC will be a critical element of success. Also, the concept of “jointness” is vital in avoiding major service rivalry or tension as the defense establishment embarks on the important but arduous task of shifting its defense paradigm.

Meanwhile, other parts of the national security establishment will have to consider the CADC and its impact on their strategies and plans. The implications are particularly evident in other security agencies such as the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Coast Guard. For instance, the tasks that the military will have to de-prioritize to align with the CADC will have to be taken up by other services that might be more appropriate for the tasks. While there might be legal and capability issues that need to be sorted out, there is no denying that the paradigm shift of the defense also calls for a recalibration in the country’s broader approach to public safety, security, and order.

The regional security context is also a likely factor in the commitment to undertake this shift. Since the Marcos administration came into office in 2022, the foreign policy of the Philippines has prioritized the national security interests in the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its portion of the South China Sea. This has led to the adoption of a transparency policy that exposed the so-called gray zone tactics that China is employing to assert sovereignty over the vital waterway. In addition to this, the Philippines is also closely monitoring the state of cross-Strait relations, given Taiwan’s geographical proximity to its northern territories and waters. Thus, the inclusion of the security and protection of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the CADC and the increased military presence in Batanes, the Philippines’ northernmost islands, are indications of how the regional security landscape has informed the defense calculation of the Philippines.

Like any sovereign and independent state, the Philippines has the right to self-defense and therefore take the necessary steps it sees fit to be able to defend itself against potential aggression. This kind of preparation does not negate the peaceful policy and amicable attitude of the Philippines towards other countries. Thus, the CADC should not be misconstrued as a strategy that seeks to instigate war or a result of great pressure and influence from its allies and partners. Instead, this development is a clear manifestation that the Philippines has agency in international affairs and that its foreign policy is responding to its external environment to protect the nation’s vital interests.