Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Philippines: lost at sea in the Spratlys

This August, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam will take delivery of her second “Gepard 3.9 Class” frigate.

Vietnam’s two Gepard (Russian for “cheetah”) frigates are now among the most advanced surface combatants in Southeast Asia apart from the Republic of Singapore’s six French-made “La Fayette” multi-role stealth frigates and the Republic of China's U.S. made destroyers and "La Fayette" stealth frigates.

The Gepard’s firepower is formidable: eight sea-skimming “Switchblade” anti-ship missiles, each with a range of 130 km; a surface-to-air missile system; two 6-barreled 30 mm autocannon; torpedoes; an anti-submarine rocket launcher and a 76.2 mm dual purpose main gun. All this Russian-made firepower in a small ship weighing only 2,000 tons and crewed by just 100 men.

Each of Vietnam’s Gepards has enough firepower to easily sink any World War II warship, including the 65,000 ton Yamato whose massive nine 46 cm main guns had a range of just 42 km.

One of Vietnam's two Gepard-class frigates

Challenging China
Begun in 2006, the modernization of the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) doesn’t end with the delivery of the Gepards, however. Vietnam is awaiting delivery of six improved “Kilo Class” submarines (six torpedo tubes, 6,000 mile range) and 20 Sukhoi “Su-30MK2” Flanker-C naval fighter-bombers (5,000 mile range, anti-ship missiles).

These weapons systems, all made in Russia, bring Vietnam closer to the point where she can successfully challenge China—her primary strategic foe—if push comes to shove in the West Philippine Sea. Of these three weapons systems, the Kilo Class submarines will be the most important in any future naval fight against China.

Ship-to-ship, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is overwhelmingly superior to the VPN. The PLAN has 50 frigates to counter Vietnam’s seven. It also operates 26 destroyers, 19 conventional attack submarines, three nuclear submarines, 80 missile-armed coastal warfare ships and over 200 fast attack craft.

Submarines, however, offer Vietnam the realistic prospect of tilting the odds in its favor in a renewed naval conflict over the Spratlys given China’s inexperience in anti-submarine warfare. And Vietnam will have six modern attack submarines to attack Chinese surface ships.

Unfortunately for China, over 90 percent of her maritime trade transits the West Philippine Sea. This makes Chinese merchantmen and warships easier prey for Vietnam’s Kilo submarines, also known as “Black Holes” for their ability to avoid detection.

Hence, Vietnam’s current strategy of building-up its submarine force, both to interdict Chinese shipping and to take revenge for previous defeats at China’s hands in naval battles in the Spratlys.

Vietnam’s last defeat occurred off our Kalayaan Archipelago in March 1988. In that battle, three missile-armed Chinese frigates attacked three almost defenseless Vietnamese troop transport ships defended by three lightly armed patrol boats, sinking all the transports and killing 60 Vietnamese. The Chinese lost six men but no ships. 

Other claimants' navies
Malaysia and the Republic of China (ROC), two other claimants to the Spratlys, also realize the immense value of submarines and modern warships in defending their national interests in the West Philippine Sea.

Malaysia two years ago took delivery of two Scorpène submarines built by France. These advanced subs are armed with “Blackshark” wire-guided torpedoes and “Exocet SM-39” sub-launched anti-ship missiles. They have a patrol range of 12,000 km on the surface.

The ROC, on the other hand, operates four submarines, 22 modern frigates and four destroyers. In addition, the ROC Navy is building 30 “Kuang Hua VI Class” missile boats capable of patrolling the West Philippine Sea.

The ROC is also reported to be developing a “carrier killer” called “Hsun Hai (Swift Sea),” a state-of-the-art missile corvette. This nimble sea fighter will rely on sophisticated stealth technologies to evade detection and engage PROC aircraft carriers with its eight anti-ship missiles. A prototype is scheduled for delivery next year.

It is now almost certain the PROC intends to build five aircraft carriers that will all become operational by the next decade. Since these carriers will undoubtedly be used to show the flag in the Spratlys thereby raising tensions, the naval build-ups by Vietnam, the ROC and Malaysia have sound strategic bases.

The Philippines and her Navy
And what of the Philippines and her Philippine Navy?

As we undoubtedly have the strongest claim to control the Spratly’s among the six contenders, one would expect this country to have placed orders for frigates, submarines, long-range fighter aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles and other necessary military hardware to back our claim more forcefully.

The Chinese dragon won’t bother with the Philippine eagle—unless that eagle breathes fire, too.

Yes, we are modernizing—in a way. Last March, the Philippine Navy took delivery of one Hamilton Class cutter from the United States. When this cutter was in service with the U.S. Coast Guard, it was used for search and rescue, anti-smuggling operations and patrolling the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

This ship has been renamed BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15). It is armed with a 76 mm cannon, two 25 mm Mk38 Bushmaster autocannon and one 20 mm Close-in-Weapons System (CIWS) for anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense.

Its armament makes it more powerful than the BRP Rajah Humabon (three 3 inch guns), the Navy’s World War II vintage flagship. But we’ll only have one Hamilton Class cutter, which is also termed a frigate.

BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a lightweight compared to the heavy-hitting Gepards and the PLAN's Type 052 destroyers.

The del Pilar and the Humabon are the most powerful units in the Philippine Fleet. Backing up these ships are about 13 corvettes and 40 patrol boats. None of these ships are missile-armed, so their survivability in a naval battle or even a minor skirmish is seriously in doubt.

Were this country a bit richer, the Philippines would probably have trod the same road as Vietnam and shopped the world for the best available arms to meet our unique needs. Alas, this is not meant to be.

Despite its paucity in naval fighting power, the Philippines has an ace-in-the-hole: the mighty United States Navy.

On June 23, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged U.S. support for Philippines amid escalating tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea. Brushing aside a Chinese warning for the U.S. to stay out of the row, Clinton said that U.S. national interests in freedom of navigation and respect for international law were at stake.

“I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines,” Clinton said, adding the U.S. would honor its 1951 mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. She said Washington would stand by its old friend.

While the U.S. “. . . does not take sides on territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, but we oppose the use of force or the threat of force to advance the claims of any party,” she said.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario said the Philippines is relying on U.S. help to strengthen its naval capabilities. The unequivocal U.S. pledge might serve to diffuse tensions with China for now, and this was probably its intent.

China's eternal nightmare: the US Navy's 10 Nimitiz-class supercarriers, one of which is the USS Ronald Reagan.

China, however, has shown a stubborn streak in its push for hegemony in the West Philippine Sea. And there is reason to doubt China’s sincerity when she states diplomacy is her preferred tool in solving the Spratlys’ impasse. Her relentless aggressive actions seem to belie this claim.

Only the U.S. or a military coalition among the other five claimants will suffice to keep China in check. And the Philippines can learn from recent history the folly of appeasing aggressive states such as China. Remember Neville Chamberlain?

History must not repeat itself at our expense.

* Published July 2011