Philippine Navy

[ANALYSIS] Quo vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession

Rommel Jude G. Ong

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[ANALYSIS] Quo vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'The PH Navy needs engineers, data scientists, roboticists, and logisticians with private sector experience'

Six years under the Duterte administration have shackled the Philippine Navy (PN) from performing its mandate to protect the country’s exercise of sovereign rights in our EEZ. The period has left an open field for China’s maritime forces to control the waters around the Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals, and challenged our occupation of various isles and features in the Kalayaan Island Group. Moreover, our energy and food security are in peril. 

The entry of the Marcos administration provided a needed reboot for the Armed Forces (AFP). Finally, after decades of preoccupation with domestic security concerns, the government is seriously shifting its focus toward external defense. Unfortunately, the PN is not a beneficiary of this development.

Fear of escalation of conflict in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has compelled the national security leadership to employ the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) as its “force of choice.” Amid this, the word gray-zone occupies the beginning, middle, and ending of current public discourse involving the WPS.

How can the Philippine Navy extricate itself from this rabbit hole called gray-zone? If the government no longer treats it as the “force of choice” in the WPS, then it must redesign its strategy and capabilities as the government’s “final option.” To do so, it needs to revisit the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Edward Luttwak. Their operational concepts still provide the best explanation for understanding the behavior and tactics of Chinese maritime forces in the South China Sea (SCS).

More importantly, it must prepare to deal with the two truths about the adversary confronting us.

First, the PLA’s strength in the SCS lies with the PLA-Navy’s surface fleet, not the Chinese Coast Guard, and definitely not the militia. Second, a decision by Beijing to escalate the conflict in the WPS will not depend on our conformity with the “white versus white” narrative. Their posture will escalate if the CCP decides it is their interest to do so. In either context, only the PN has the designed lethal capabilities that has any hope of achieving a minimum level of deterrence.  

Push for an ‘archipelagic defense strategy

The PN and the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) need to sit down together and review its AAD and ACDS, determine how it can be implemented with the available resources, and determine how it will fit with the horizon of the AFP Modernization Program. The PMC is a partner; it is not a competitor. Its Bhramos anti-ship missile (AShM) batteries are still the best solution to challenge a dominant PLA-N surface fleet, and not the acquisition of more frigates. However, the PMC needs more batteries, beef up the logistics for it, and the civil engineering support. 

Innovate with disruptive technologies

The non-existent Ukrainian Navy has managed to keep the Russian Black Sea Fleet in check through unmanned aerial and surface systems. Drones are the great equalizer in current naval warfare. Swarms of drones can offset the numerical advantage of Chinese maritime forces deployed in the Kalayaan Island Group and within our EEZ. Its port facilities in Subic, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs can be as safe as Sevastopol in the Crimea. Moreover, it can be deployed for the defense of our seven archipelagic straits.

An inclusive officer corps

The PN needs engineers, data scientists, roboticists, and logisticians with private sector experience. However, it needs to overcome the institutional bias against officers who are not graduates of the Philippine Military Academy, and provide equal opportunities for a progressive career regardless of source of commission. Hurdling this, the PN will be better postured to create a culture of innovation among its officers. 

[ANALYSIS] Quo vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession
Get rid of ineffective legacy systems

As an example, the PN’s land-based radar monitoring systems are obsolete. It is time to shift to a space-based surveillance system using nano-satellite technology, which can cover the entire archipelago. It is versatile, and is easy on the logistics. India and Japan could provide the technical assistance to develop, assemble, and launch them into orbit. Artificial intelligence can help with the recording, evaluation, and interpretation of satellite data, to establish a comprehensive maritime picture of the entire archipelago. 

Private sector partnership

The PN needs to build a less expensive fleet to complement the high-end frigates and corvettes it acquired from South Korea. To do this, it needs to collaborate with the private sector in setting up a domestic shipbuilding industry. It should support a multi-year re-fleeting program, which can benefit not only the PN but the PCG as well.

Think minilateral

The PN must learn to work with other navies beyond the conduct of naval exercises. Examples of this are the TCA-INDOMALPHI arrangement border with Indonesia and Malaysia, and the emerging collaboration with the US and Japan. These minilateral arrangements  provide opportunities for the PN to leverage its strategic partnerships to deal with regional security concerns, which affect our maritime security.

However, any attempt at reinvention and innovation will falter unless the top leadership steps up its game. Bureaucratic politics has no respect for the meek and the mild. The PN right now requires a reinvigorated “strategic culture” and needs to work closely with the PMC and push for their common agenda, all while navigating an unfavorable “policy and strategy environment.” Failing this, this generation’s PN and PMC will remain as an afterthought. –

Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret.) is currently Professor of Praxis at Ateneo School of Government. He was formerly the Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    Thanks to this enlightening article by former Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong entitled, “Quo Vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession.” Ordinary civilian Filipinos do not know the military aspect of the West Philippine Sea issue; hence Mr. Ong’s article is very helpful. I agree with all his suggestions, but we must have feedback from President Marcos Jr. himself about this. This is because the crucial problem can be induced from this statement of his: “Bureaucratic politics has no respect for the meek and the mild.” But, is the Marcos Jr. policy of “friend to all and enemy to none” not meek and mild? It seems that even our bureaucratic politics is really meek and mild. And, lastly and unfortunately – a meek and mild bureaucracy in the context of the West Philippine Sea issue is contrary to the Military Value of Bravery.

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