The Armed Forces of the Philippines has become too army-centric, leaving the country ill-prepared for the multidomain conflicts of the future, Joshua Espeña writes.
Asia’s strategic future remains uncertain, but if strategic history tells anything, war and the fear of war have shaped it.
Trends in technology change over time and, strategically, states adapt. Major wars in the last century reflected this change, with militaries shifting from the attritional trench warfare of the First World War to the manoeuvre warfare of the Second World War to the strategic deterrence of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Since the end of the Cold War, ‘revolution in military affairs’ (RMA) has been the talk of the town, with the Pentagon asserting that communications technology would become the most influential element of change in how militaries fight. Of course, without a near-peer enemy, the United States had the most technologically superior military in this period.
The country demonstrated this superiority during the First Gulf War in 1991, defeating Iraq in 42 days thanks to the ability of its army, navy, marines, and air force to conduct joint operations using high-end sensors, weapons, and platforms to move, shoot, and communicate almost seamlessly.
This capacity for joint operations resulted in envy among the world’s militaries, especially China.
Amidst these developments, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has struggled to keep pace. With the country’s Senate rejecting to renew base treaties with the United States, its only treaty ally, the Philippines needs to compensate by investing in its own external defence.
This problem is compounded by the fact that AFP has been an army-dominated and internal security-oriented military, leaving its navy under-prepared to face genuine threats.
Since the 1990s, the Philippines has slowly emerged from its naval slumber, woken by Chinese assertiveness in its maritime spaces, such as the 1995 Mischief Reef incident and the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff.
Specifically, the Philippine Navy (PN) released its 2012 Philippine Fleet Desired Force Mix concept, which included a suite of upgrades to its capabilities that would be funded under the AFP Modernization Act, which passed in the same year.
Since 2012, the navy has managed to secure platform landing docks, corvettes, multi-purpose attack crafts, and offshore patrol vessels as part of the program, most of which are hand-me-downs.
The PN does, however, boast two brand-new South Korean-made multi-role frigates designed for green-water missions. It also has Israeli-made Mark III MPACs with Spiker-ER missiles designed for surface-to-surface combat.
Next, it is looking to acquire two submarines, ostensibly for deterrence, to boost national morale, and achieve sea control and denial capabilities over adversaries. The AFP is also expected to acquire powerful land-based anti-ship missiles for its coastal defence after sealing a deal with India in early 2021.
Despite all this investment, the PN remains under-resourced compared to its most likely adversary in a conflict, the Chinese navy. It currently possesses two aircraft carriers and a handful of frigates, destroyers, corvettes, destroyers, and submarines, many of which are employed in the South China Sea. This is not even to mention the relentless work of the Chinese navy to improve its combat readiness or its conventional and nuclear missile capabilities. Its hypersonic missiles in particular introduce complexity to any possible battleground.
This deficiency can’t simply be ‘covered’ by the United States either. As China develops its ability to win modern wars, especially with its anti-access and area denial capabilities – like early warning systems, electronic jammers, cyberattack capacity, and anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles – it is raising the cost for the United States to assist the Philippines.
Even with strong American commitment in case of conflict, as it stands, the AFP would likely struggle to execute its defensive strategy of ‘holding the line’ until reinforcements arrive from the United States and its allies, and it must continue to upgrade its capabilities so that it can play this role.
Warfare’s shift to RMA is not just about a technological change – it is also a more holistic one. The multidomain character of warfare in the 2020s means the AFP must improve its ability to conduct joint activities and broaden the scope of its naval operations if it is to be prepared for future wars.
This requires attention to balancing the power of its force providers and not allowing the AFP to become too army-centric. The Philippines needs to reduce inter-service rivalry and get its armed forces working together to exploit its adversaries’ weaknesses while denying their advantages.
If it can achieve this, it would ultimately help establish control over the country’s claimed maritime space and contribute to upholding the rules-based regional order. A modern PN, therefore, is one that is integrated and prepared for multidomain warfare, and the government and public should get behind its modernisation.