West Philippine Sea

PH’s first 2024 resupply mission to Ayungin thwarted… by boat repairs

Bea Cupin

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PH’s first 2024 resupply mission to Ayungin thwarted… by boat repairs

BRP SIERRA MADRE. The BRP Sierra Madre, a transport ship used as a military outpost of the Philippine Marines, marooned at Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, on March 2014.

REUTERS

(1st UPDATE) The military refuses to confirm reports of a resupply to Ayungin via airdrop, even as stills and footage of it make the rounds on social media

The humble Unaizah May 1 has been through the wringer, especially in 2023. 

The Unaizah May 1 or UM1 is one of two boats the Philippine Navy uses in its regular rotation and resupply (RORE) missions to Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, where the rusty BRP Sierra Madre serves as a military outpost. 

But what would have been its first resupply mission over the weekend (January 20 and 21) was thwarted by a “technical difficulty” that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) declined to elaborate on. 

Speaking to reporters on Monday, January 22, AFP spokesperson Colonel Francel Padilla said they had “identified that there was a technical difficulty” and that RORE would not take place until the AFP determined that the ship was “sea worthy.” 

A source privy to the status of the Unaizah May 1 said minor repairs were being made and would be “completed soon.”

Air drop to Ayungin?

Meanwhile, on social media, accounts seemingly dedicated to spreading information on activities in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, posted footage and stills showing a supposed air drop of supplies to soldiers stationed on the Sierra Madre

Padilla told media air drops are typically only used in “emergency situations.” 

Colonel Xerxes Trinidad, the AFP’s Public Affairs Office chief, said they could not “comment on operational details.” 

“Again, such option (air drop) has been part of the operational mix that the AFP employs to support emergency supplies needed by our troops in LS57 given a short period of time,” he said in a messaging group for defense reporters. LS57 is the identifier of the BRP Sierra Madre

The first RORE to Ayungin in 2024 has been long delayed. It was first scheduled in early January and then the week after, but both times it had to be postponed because of bad weather. The UM1 can only safely navigate through certain wave heights, those familiar with its structure told Rappler. 

To be sure, the UM1 and boats like it have not had it easy. 

Barge, Boat, Transportation
BLOCKING MANUEVERS. The Unaizah Mae 1 and the BRP Sindangan are surrounded by CCG and CCM vessels en route to Ayungin Shoal.

Its sister boat, the Unaizah May 2, is still being repaired after colliding with a much larger and stronger China Coast Guard vessel during the October 2023 resupply mission. The ship that temporarily replaced the UM2, the ML Kalayaan, was also damaged after being subject to the CCG’s water cannons. 

Ayungin Shoal is a low-tide elevation located over 100 nautical miles away from the coast of Palawan, which means it’s well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, where it should have sovereign rights. Yet China claims Ayungin Shoal and most of the South China Sea, and views resupply missions to the Sierra Madre as a violation of its territorial rights. 

In a statement released over a week after supplies were reportedly airdropped, the China Coast Guard claimed it made “temporary special arrangements” to allow the delivery of goods.  

Referring to the Sierra Madre as an “illegally beached warship,” the CCG said in a January 27 statement that it “followed up and monitored” the airdrop and “controlled and dealt with it in accordance with laws and regulations.” 

What is a RORE for?

This would not be the first time for the military to use air drops – if they’re admit to it in January 2024 – in Ayungin Shoal. Almost a decade ago, in May 2014, the Navy airdropped supplies following a tense rotation and resupply mission in March 2014. 

While airdrops are, as the AFP puts it, “part of the operational mix” in bringing emergency supplies to the Sierra Madre, it’s not ideal.

For one, there’s a limit to what you can send troops through airdrops. There’s no way airdrops can include supplies for the rusting Sierra Madre, with its long list of things to repair and improve. 

Second, RORE missions to Ayungin Shoal are also for the rotation of troops, who are stationed there for months at a time. It’s only through RORE missions that those done with their tour of duty in the rusty warship can finally go home. 

UM1 is the same vessel that AFP General Romeo Brawner and Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos rode when they joined a RORE mission to see for themselves the condition of the BRP Sierra Madre.

The regular RORE missions made headlines in the latter part of 2023, after the government decided to routinely embed journalists in Philippine Coast Guard vessels that accompany the Navy-contracted boats. During those missions, the UM1, UM2, ML Kalayaan, as well as PCG vessels weave through and dodge a swath of CCG and Chinese Maritime Militia vessels trying to block their access to Ayungin Shoal.

The Philippines and China recently agreed to improve its communication mechanism to avoid untoward incidents in the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.