Thursday, June 2, 2011

In 'interesting times', Philippine Navy must navigate its own limitations

by Lourdes M. Fernandez
InterAksyon, Thursday, June 2, 2011

MANILA, Philippines – One would think, given recent incidents of China’s alleged “bullying” of other claimants in the South China Sea, that the admiral at the helm of the badly-equipped but bravely-manned Philippine Navy would be doing nothing but gnash his teeth over the obvious mismatch in military muscle, and cry nonstop for bigger budgets for naval defense.

To be sure, Rear Admiral Alex Pama is pushing for better materiel for a Navy whose role has grown substantially –from defending Philippine territory to confronting threats like piracy, human and drug trafficking, and protecting the country’s biodiversity from poachers – but he is also realistic enough to know that having the right and adequate hardware isn’t the only crucial ingredient here.

At bottom, says the 54-year-old veteran of the AFP’s campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, “you must build capacity, or make sure you have the right ‘humanware’, even as you build capability,” or the hardware. He knows from experience that the latter is a tall order in a country that has trailed neighbors in its defense capabilities despite the supposed billions raised for an ambitious, but stalled, military upgrade from the proceeds of the conversion of sprawling military bases into economic zones.

Adm. Pama sees the need to address the human factor not only in terms of the 22,000 men and women in the Navy. He advocates passionately as well the need for “maritime domain education,” noting with dismay that right now few people appreciate the real situation of an archipelago like the Philippines, or why it is embroiled in territorial disputes with other countries, or even the simpler risks it faces in terms of human security just because it is a country fragmented into 7,100 islands.

‘Land-centric’ mentality, systems

Ironically, for a country with the third longest coastline in the world (at 36,000 kilometers, almost double that of the US), most everything about Philippine history and culture, education, military institutions and directions since after the 1898 declaration of independence has been, in his words, “so land-centric.”

It’s an observation that resonates with a former defense chief, now Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who recently stressed the need to build the Air Force and Navy’s capability alongside each other, if the country were to beef up, however slightly, its external defense. The “land-centric” mentality is reflected in how, for decades on end, Philippine leaders have poured the lion’s share of defense budgets into an Army that has long been battling insurgencies.

True, Pama says, the Philippines has to build capability in naval materiel considering the “definite mismatch between needs and existing assets,” but he asserts that doing so cannot be done independently of building up the capacity of the Navy’s corps, as well as - and here he expects people to raise eyebrows -getting the real pulse of the Filipino people in terms of their sense of being stakeholders over the national territory.

The Admiral winced when asked whether he thought the lowly soldier in the Navy’s puny outpost in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the South China Sea is often stricken with doubt over the question of, “do Filipinos care if I die defending this rocky outcrop they don’t even know about?” Exactly the point, he says, in insisting that at the very least, authorities should give some attention to maritime domain education.

It is this same realization that military solutions alone won’t suffice, he says, that guided his stint in Western Mindanao, where he was commander of naval forces until 2001. Faced with the obvious mismatch between a Navy with a rickety fleet and the ransom-funded fast craft used by the flamboyant leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, Pama’s unit had dug in deeply, patiently, slowly, tapping into the goodwill of communities fed up with depredations by the terrorist group.

Reflecting the typical Filipino talent for “diskarte,” or making do with meager resources to solve a problem, the naval forces in Western Mindanao eventually bagged one Abu Sayyaf leader after another in a series of operations involving composite military teams.
‘Way beyond comparisons’

Still, cautions Pama, it’s not wise to “extrapolate what we did in Mindanao” to the bigger challenge in the South China Sea, where the area is bigger, the other players better equipped, and “resource constraint is beyond our control.”

The Navy, he explains, simply adjusts to what the Philippine political and military leadership determines is the certain capability they want to aspire to, given a particular threat level. Here, he adds, comes in the third “C” or “credibility,” after capability and capacity. The vision is to have by 2020 “a strong and credible Navy this nation can be proud of.” But, he adds quickly, it’s important to find the public pulse on the level of threat they wish the Armed Forces to meet. As an example: obviously, going toe to toe with China is an unrealistic expectation at the moment, when both diplomacy and presenting a credible deterrence are needed.

Is the Navy bothered by China’s expanded garrisons and military outposts in seven islets in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), as reported in an exclusive report by News5’s DJ Sta. Ana recently, or an InterAksyon report on China beefing up its paramilitary fleet in disputed waters? Pama declined to comment on the extent of the Chinese outposts, only saying, “we do know naval solutions and naval diplomacy”, then adding a cryptic, “we in the Navy live in interesting times.”

He also declined to provide details on how the AFP under President Aquino will address the new, rising risks posed by recent Chinese moves in the disputed Spratlys and even in the Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

He acknowledges, though, the clear support the Navy has gotten under President Aquino, particularly the recent acquisition of the Hamilton, the former US Coast Guard cutter, to serve as the Navy’s flagship in lieu of the BRP Raja Humabon now nearing seven decades old.
Aquino has vowed to have the defense budget grow nearly two-fold, to $2.4 billion, this year.

Besides this, an additional $970 million is supposed to be allocated for the procurement of hardware until 2016, as part of the AFP upgrading that was delayed even though the bases conversion program that should fund it was launched in the 1990s yet.

“Resource-wise, President Aquino is walking the talk. Beyond the official budgets, he has been actively looking for other resources” to allow the Navy to get the decent minimum materiel in a modernization program with a short- (two years), medium (five years) and long- (nine) horizon. This is why, he explains, building capacity right now is crucial so that the naval staff will be ready to handle the hardware as they are slowly acquired.

In a recent interview with Jane’s Defense Weekly’s Manila correspondent Gordon Arthur, Pama was quoted saying that while the threat posed by the “Chinese ambitions” was largely a “political matter with a lot of diplomatic methods being undertaken,” the Navy was undertaking certain “measures” to beef up its maritime defense.

Arthur cited reports saying the installation of island radar stations and renovating an air strip on Pagasa Island, the biggest in the KIG, were in the works.

What Pama confirms, and is passionate about, is beefing up a “Coast Watch” system of people, vessels and radar stations for “detecting, monitoring and interdicting” threats in coastal regions of the archipelago. It was piloted in the South and a national grid is envisioned.

On Wednesday, as the DFA summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain the most recent Chinese intrusions on May 21 and 24, AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Oban said they plan to set up more coast watch stations and radars to cover the country’s western flank, including Palawan.

“We have initially set up coast watch stations in the south, particularly in Mindanao and the Sulu-Celebes area. In another phase we will be putting up coast watch stations and radars in the west and, eventually, to the north, until we cover the entire archipelago,” reports quoted Oban saying at a briefing.

The AFP said it plans to complete the putting up of the western coast watch stations in two to three years using funds generated from the Malampaya natural gas project, according to a report in

In the same forum, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin reiterated what he and Oban told reporters on Monday, after flying to Palawan for a conference meant to assess the AFP’s updated requirements in maritime security, given the rash of intrusions and “bullying” by foreign forces.

The mandate is simple, Oban said: “We want to get more assets that will be able to provide security in the disputed areas.”

Meanwhile, Pama concedes in the Interaksyon interview that the threats - from foreign troops’ bullying, from pirates, drug smugglers and poachers - have grown so diverse that the meager naval resources can barely cope with them, but declines to render a list of what is priority. “We can’t say one is more important than the other. We address what happens when it happens,” he says then softly mutters as he points to a map of the Philippines and the South China Sea, “let’s hope they don’t all happen at the same time.”

The “unsinkable” Alex Pama, as Starweek magazine once described him, doesn’t hide his painful appreciation of the huge challenge his command faces, or his dismay over the considerable time lost because the AFP modernization was stalled by issues of politics, corruption and sheer apathy.

But he is confident that it won’t be too late for all current efforts to start bearing fruit, and hopes they won’t get derailed again for one reason or another. He concludes, “If we have short memories, let’s hope we have longer foresight.”

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