The Obsolete Philippine Navy

The Philippine frigate Gregorio del Pilar transits with a US Coast Guard vessel in the background.

The Philippine frigate Gregorio del Pilar transits with a US Coast Guard vessel in the background. Note the single 76mm cannon in the front; the vessel carries no missile armament.

The Philippines is a geographically large nation with a substantial population of over 100 million. It also consists of over 7,000 islands. Despite this, the Philippine Navy has little combat capability. This article will examine the current state and composition of the Philippine Navy as well as where the it is headed in the future.

The Philippine Navy is peculiarly small for an island nation. The largest vessels in the Philippine Navy are ex-Hamilton class US Coast Guard cutters. These small “frigates” (as designated by the Philippine Navy) displace a mere 2,700 tons. Their main armament is a measly 76mm Mk 75 DP autocannon. Obviously, with no defensive or offensive missiles to speak of, these vessels would be largely useless in combat against a modern adversary, such China. They do have small autocannons in addition to the Mk 75, but these are vastly insufficient to defend against any sort of modern missile threat. The Mk 75 main guns of of the Philippine flagships have a range of around 10 nautical miles (nmi), whereas Chinese missiles such as the C-602 have ranges in excess of 150nmi; there is a distance of 140nmi between ships where the Philippine ships would be within striking range of the Chinese but unable to retaliate. Clearly, the Philippine Navy’s ships would be at an enormous disadvantage in any sort of battle, as their 76mm autocannons are impotent compared to modern missile armaments, and they lack defense against a missile attack. The Philippine Navy does not operate missile armed combatants of any size, nor does it possess submarines. The rest of the Philippine Navy is composed of corvettes, fast attack craft, and patrol ships, none of which are equipped with missiles.

Countries in the region and of comparable population, such as Vietnam (whose GDP is less), operate submarines and modern missile-armed combatants. Vietnam operates four submarines (with two on order) whereas the Philippines operates no submarines. Similarly, the Vietnamese Navy operates two modern Gepard-class frigates and is soon to receive two more. Of course, the two nations had very different historical experiences, which likely shaped their views regarding military funding. Nevertheless, this simple comparison illustrates that other players in the region with similar populations are able to field advanced vessels. So why is the Philippine Navy is lacking in modern equipment? Evidently, it received less attention and funding than the Vietnamese Navy. Many journalists point out that the Philippine Navy has been subject to years of “underfunding and neglect.” Of course, nations like the Philippines have many reasons to withhold funding from their navies. While the Philippines is not under-developed severely, it still has a long way to go in raising living standards for inhabitants, which many would argue is a more valiant goal than enlarging the military.

Many nations would be happy to forgo military spending for various reasons, but they do not. Why did the Philippines feel able to re-allocate government funding elsewhere while other Pacific nations built their navies? The obvious answer lies in the US-Philippine defense pact, a document signed in 1952 which guarantees that the US will come to the aid of the Philippines if an armed attack by a foreign nation occurs. The document also provides that the Philippines will come to the aid of the US if the US is attacked, although this is understandably less significant as an attack by a nation on the US homeland would be suicidal for the attacking regime. Nations like the Vietnam, who do not enjoy any protection of this nature, have a larger incentive to build up their navies.

The pact gives the Philippines a certain measure of confidence in its military situation. However, relying on the pact for maritime defense and sea control has limitations. Chiefly, breaches of maritime sovereignty alone do not compel the United States to defend the Philippines, as is clear in incidents such as the Scarborough Shoals Standoff. So, while the Philippines relies on the mutual defense pact for national defense wholesale, it seems that this approach has not served the Philippines well when it comes to territorial disputes, as their navy is lacking in the muscle to make China think twice about breaching territorial waters.

So where does the Philippines go from here? It seems that they have chosen to enhance their maritime power in light of current deficiencies. The Philippine government has announced a plan to purchase two new frigates, though the bid specifies that they be down-graded in terms of armament (likely to free up space for other payloads). Nevertheless, if this purchase is to proceed, and at this point it seems that it will, the Philippine Navy will receive its first modern missile-armed surface combatants, a significant boost to capabilities. The addition of this and other assets indicates the Philippine Navy is serious about boosting its capabilities; it is possible that if this rate of procurement is to be sustained, the Philippine Navy could be a real force in the region within a number of years. However, for now, the Philippine Navy will remain an outdated force operating obsolete frigates, patrol vessels and fast attack craft which could not hope to achieve much in a shooting war with another powerful nation.

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