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A nation must think before it acts.
In many respects, the navy that the Philippines is now building is a new one. By the 1990s, its old navy had fallen into such a state of obsolescence that it had no ships capable of fighting a modern naval battle. Indeed, with the exception of a single World War II-era destroyer escort, the navy had no vessel bigger than a 62-meter offshore patrol boat. But in the coming years, the Philippine navy will for the first time acquire the full spectrum of contemporary anti-air, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and electronic warfare capabilities that it has lacked for so long. Still, it remains to be seen if the Philippine navy will acquire those capabilities in sufficient quantity or quality to present a “credible deterrent” against the Philippines’ various challengers in the South China Sea.
As a vast archipelagic country embroiled in a major maritime dispute, the Philippines could have been expected to have devoted more resources to its navy. But it did not for decades. Some attributed that choice to Manila’s need to combat internal insurgencies; others a hope that the Philippines’ long-standing security treaty with the United States be enough to protect its maritime borders; and still others a gamble that its largest maritime antagonist, the People’s Republic of China, would eventually lose interest in sovereignty disputes and focus on joint economic development.
Xi Jinping’s ascendance to China’s presidency in 2013 settled the last issue. Putting an end to any lingering debate within the Chinese government, he aggressively asserted China’s claims in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for Manila, its American ally was caught in the middle of an under-resourced “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia at the time. It would not be until the end of President Barack Obama’s second term before the United States would make a concerted effort to push back against Chinese behavior in the region.
By then it was too little too late for the Philippines. China had enlarged the islets it occupied in the Spratly archipelago and constructed military installations on them. It also seized Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, after a months-long standoff in 2012. All the while, Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen escalated. In response, then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino III sought to rebuild his country’s external defense forces and cooperate with other Southeast Asian claimants in the region. He also brought (and won) a landmark case against China’s claims in an international court. While his successor, Rodrigo Duterte, has since decided to befriend China and set aside the court’s decision, he has not halted the Philippines’ military buildup, a key beneficiary of which has been the navy.
Now, the Philippines’ new navy has begun to take shape. Within a year, it will field four frigates, one corvette, and two strategic sealift ships. These include two former American Hamilton-class high-endurance coast guard cutters, which have been upgraded and re-classified as frigates, and two new South Korean-built Jose Rizal-class frigates, which will provide the navy with its first dedicated anti-air warfare capability. In August, the Philippine navy commissioned a former South Korean Pohang-class corvette, the navy’s first ship to be equipped with an integrated sonar system. Recently, rumors have started to bubble that South Korea plans to donate two more retired Pohang-class corvettes to the Philippines, which in return will purchase two new-build corvettes.
More ships are expected. Austal, an Australian shipbuilder, has expanded its Philippine shipyard in preparation for orders for new offshore patrol vessels. In 2019, the Philippines issued a tender for two landing ship docks that can accommodate four landing craft and 500 troops. And it will likely order two more frigates from South Korea before 2022. Finally, it has explored the possibility of submarine construction with several international shipbuilders. Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana even welcomed the possibility of a deal for Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines in 2018. While that made the United States cringe, it was clear that even a China-friendly Philippine government would continue to expand its naval forces. To man all its new ships, the navy expects to boost its ranks by 2,000 to 24,000 by 2020.
So far, the Philippine navy’s acquisitions have hewed closely to what it laid out in its Strategic Sail Plan 2020 and its Philippine Fleet Desired Force Mix proposal in 2012. The documents envisaged a naval force structure comprised of three diesel-electric submarines, six anti-air warfare frigates, 12 anti-submarine warfare corvettes, and four strategic sealift ships by 2027. With such a force, the navy contended, it could create a “credible deterrent.” While that force may be a reasonable match for the navies of most other Southeast Asian countries, it would still be hard pressed to counter China, whose navy includes nine nuclear attack submarines, 59 diesel-electric submarines, an aircraft carrier, 33 destroyers, 53 frigates, and 42 corvettes.
For the moment, local sea denial—preventing an adversary from safely operating in limited areas—is probably the best that the Philippines’ new navy can hope to achieve. And it can only do that if it acquires submarines (and more than three of them). Practically, that is still years away. Without any prior experience with submersibles, the navy will have to acquire the maintenance facilities, rescue equipment, simulators, and skills needed to ensure that it can properly operate a submarine fleet of any strength.
Nevertheless, anything the Philippine navy can do to better protect the Philippines’ offshore natural gas blocks, particularly those near the Malampaya Natural Gas and Power Project, which supplies the country’s main island of Luzon with half of its energy, would be a step forward. Doing so could give energy companies the confidence to explore those blocks and improve the country’s energy security. At the very least, a small, but capable Philippine navy would enable it to pursue a fleet-in-being strategy, in which its nearby presence could make even a larger opponent think twice before it acts. But before the Philippine navy can do that, it will have to arm more of its ships with anti-air and anti-ship missiles and link them to long-range sensors at sea or in the air.
The approach the Philippines has taken stands in contrast to Vietnam’s. Hanoi has also had to rebuild its navy to better safeguard its claims in the South China Sea. But Vietnam’s approach focused on developing sea denial capabilities from the start. After gaining experience with North Korean Yugo-class midget submarines, it ordered six Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines in 2009. The submarines, the last of which was delivered in 2017, were a major investment. Their combined cost was equivalent to about half the size of Vietnam’s entire annual defense budget. But submarines are critical to successful sea denial. And now, Vietnam can maintain the simultaneous deployment of two submarines in the South China Sea. Then, Vietnam rounded out its fleet with the purchase of four Gepard-class frigates and ten Tarantul V-class corvettes from Russia. All are armed with Russian supersonic SS-N-25 anti-ship cruise missiles. And finally, in 2016, Vietnam began to publicize its naval infantry’s island-recapture drills in the Spratly Islands. All of which suggests that Vietnam intends to develop a navy capable of taking the fight to China, if needed.
The Philippines could have taken a similar approach, even with a smaller financial outlay. Capitalizing on its proximity to the South China Sea, it could have deployed mobile land-based anti-ship cruise missile batteries to hold Chinese forces at risk. But those batteries would have had limited utility in situations below the threshold of war. Thus, even though questions remain about the combat effectiveness of the Philippines’ new surface fleet, it will offer Manila a better means with which to handle what have become common maritime incidents in the South China Sea today.
No doubt rebuilding a navy is costly. Just the pair of frigates that Manila procured from South Korea cost $337 million. With its economy growing at an annual rate of over six percent since 2010, the Philippines can afford such expenditures. The real test will come when its economic growth dips. Ships are expensive to acquire, maintain, and operate. And the Philippine navy still has a long way to go before it can present a credible deterrent to Chinese maritime activities in the South China Sea.
Moreover, the Philippine navy will need support from the air. Like its naval counterpart, the Philippine air force was starved for decades. In 2005, it retired its last F-5 fighter, leaving it an air force with no jet aircraft. But with Manila’s new investment in external defense, it was able to purchase a dozen South Korean F/A-50 jet fighter-trainers. The new fighters offer the navy some prospect of air cover, particularly important since China can soon operate combat aircraft from several airfields in the South China Sea as well as from two aircraft carriers.
Even so, creating a credible deterrent is not easy. It will take more time and more money. Roughly halfway to building its desired force structure, the Philippine navy is still too small to achieve its strategic aim. Whether the navy becomes truly capable or again stagnates will, in large part, depend on the Philippine Congress to not only support, but also go beyond the ongoing multi-phase naval expansion program.
 Jon Grevatt, “Philippine, Russian navies consider submarine agreement,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, Aug. 7, 2018.
 “Philippine Navy needs P500B to upgrade war capability,” Philippine Star, May 24, 2012.