MANILA, Philippines – For an archipelago with an enviable strategic location, the fact that the Philippines has one of the region's most underequipped navies is lamentable, the Navy chief admitted, and he would willingly give up his office overlooking Manila Bay if it meant more boats, ships, and perhaps, a submarine or two.
"Maganda mag-opisina dito dahil nakikita mo 'yung dagat (It's nice to hold office here because you have a view of the sea), but then…" Philippine Navy Flag Officer-in-Command Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad trailed off as he discussed a plan to lease their headquarters that occupies prime real estate along Roxas Boulevard.
Empedrad confirmed to reporters on Wednesday, August 28, that the Navy is "engaging with companies" over a plan to lease Naval Station Jose Andrada for about P40 billion.
The Department of Budget and Management has earmarked the lease proceeds for the ballooning cost of retired soldiers' and war veterans' pensions.
Empedrad disagrees, "I would rather use it to modernize our Philippine Navy."
"Relative to our neighboring powerful navies, malayo pa tayo (we're still a long way off)," he added.
Confronted with Chinese naval, survey, and fishing vessels criss-crossing Philippine territorial waters with growing frequency, the government said the Navy will become the focus of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Plan – a 15-year program to boost the military's defense capabilities that began in 2013 worth roughly P300 billion.
Last week, the Navy brought home the Pohang-class corvette BRP Conrado Yap, a refurbished 30-year-old hand-me-down from South Korea, equipped with anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
In the next several years, the Navy is expected to get two brand new frigates, two brand new corvettes, and another two refurbished Pohang-class corvettes.
In September, the Navy will commission 4 amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) and 3 multi-purpose attack craft (MPAC).
President Rodrigo Duterte has "approved in principle" the Navy's plan to acquire two submarines, Empedrad said. Last month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the first submarine might be acquired from France.
Meanwhile, the Navy also wants to be able to build its own ships locally. Empedrad said talks are underway with possible contractors, including the Australian shipbuilder Austal, to build shipyards capable of churning out warships for the Navy.
By the end of the Duterte administration in 2022, Empedrad expects the Navy to acquire 6 new offshore patrol vessels (OPV) and 8 new fast attack interdictor craft-missiles (FAIC-M), of which 4 would be constructed locally.
"This is crucial to achieving the self-reliant defense posture that our defense secretary is pushing for," Empedrad said in a mix of Filipino and English.
But to achieve all this requires a lot of money, and Empedrad said the Navy is willing to make its own adjustments to help shore up funds.
They could move the headquarters to Naval Station Sangley Point in Cavite City or Naval Station Fort Bonifacio in Taguig. The Marines could move to Morong, Bataan.
"Although magiging masikip kami doon (we would be cramped there)," Empedrad added.
If and when the Navy moves, the property their headquarters now occupies, adjacent to the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, will be expanded by reclaiming a portion of the harbor.
It would command a hefty price, Empedrad said. "Mahal na dito (It's become expensive here)." – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.