I see the U.S. is selling a very modern missile defense system to the United Arab Emirates(UAE) to fend off possible Iranian attacks. This is a sale that benefits both the UAE and the U.S. Saudi Arabia has also put in a huge order for F-16 jets, something like $29 billion worth.
The Philippines has been working in small ways to bolster its armaments, including a couple of refurbished ships and a request to the U.S. to be allowed to buy some used F-16 jets.
This leads me to wonder what the defensive strategy of the Philippines might be. I can only guess as I'm not aware that a statement has been made, or even would be made considering the advantage that secrecy has in keeping an enemy off guard.
Which raises the question, exactly who are the enemies - or prospective enemies - of the Philippines? I count four:
- Extremist Muslims
- NPA "Communist" rebels
- Odds and Ends: Somali pirates; maybe a testy trade standoff or naval incident here or there
I'm the curious sort and am inclined to muse about all this.
How much can the Philippines afford to invest in military hardware? Not very much. The proposal to buy jet planes raised a royal outrage from those working to combat poverty. How is it possible to justify spending millions on jets that have little apparent value when so many people are starving? And Filipinos birthed 1.7 million new mouths last year, crying already to be fed.
That is the big question, isn't it? What is the value of defensive capability? Ideally, it is never used. It just exists. Is defense worth more or less than several million servings of rice in any given year? How in the world do you feed the babies as they get older?
I suppose much depends on how much value you place on the oil in the Spratleys. Or the freedom of Catholics to worship, get educated, live and dress as they wish in Muslim areas of the Philippines. One can only realize the value of investment in defensive hardware and forces if attacked, so the "risk assessment" of any probable action is the key.
If there is only a 1% risk that China will move physically into the Spratleys, backed by its air force, navy and army, should the Philippines spend millions of pesos to be able to articulate a physical response to stop them? Once China is on the ground, are there ways to get them out again?
I think it is helpful to see the national defensive strategy as long term, not politically tied to this administration's political policy or the next administration's political policy. It should probably have a 25 year horizon. Maybe even 50.
Given a slow New Year's day as everyone recovers from last night's blow-out, let me concoct how JoeAm would articulate a policy recommendation to the Philippines for its defense, considering each of the four enemies:
The Philippines would not be able to go toe-to-toe with China even 50 years from now. China is a beast, and one that is arming up. The possibility that China would move aggressively to occupy the contested Spratley Islands is much higher than 1%; maybe it is pushing 50%.
The Philippines needs a rapid response capability, small but respectable. It also needs to make certain that the U.S. would stand militarily behind any action it took to defend its territory. This may require re-opening Subic to the American Navy to secure the commitment, and this is a step that should willingly be taken. A defensive response by the Philippines would utilize primarily its Navy and Air Force assets, so the Army is free to work in Mindanao or as a standing contingency force for disasters or police support.
The Philippines needs a firm ability to take action on its own. The two recent navy vessel acquisitions are a good start for this. Given the breadth of the seas, more ships are needed to cruise regularly between protected islands and rest occasionally in port. Assume China wants to establish a physical presence on the Spratleys (or other contested islands). A "certain response" likelihood by the Philippines forces China to make tough, explicit decisions instead of using small, irritating incursions that are like a virus on the elephant's behind, barely noticeable, but effective at securing a physical place for China on the Spratleys. The jet planes would be a good addition to this response force, allowing the Philippines to appear on-scene in very short order.
Ideally, from the Philippine perspective, if China were to test the Philippines, it would trigger a U.S. response. That is the deterrent. It's more important than nuclear bombs and requires little expense. The Philippines should have America in its arsenal to encourage China to engage in diplomacy rather than move in physically. Confrontation would place China's economic gains at risk.
It also would benefit the Philippines to work with Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries facing the West Philippine Sea to form a community of nations . . . a defensive alliance . . . to counter the Chinese effort to divide and conquer. China wants discussions with each nation, separately.
Sorry, no. Form SEATDA, the Southeast Asia Territorial Defense Alliance. This would stand as a second tier backdrop to the U.S. as an answer to any untoward Chinese territorial moves.
Lacking the U.S. backing and a weak regional military alliance, the Philippines should develop guerrilla warfare capabilities to make China's "investment" in a Spratleys outpost very costly. Get some of those NPA rebels signed up. They need the work.
The goal should be to marginalize the extremists through economic development. If people understand that attacking the Philippine government puts their roads, bridges, schools, health facilities, and water and electrical resources at risk, they will be less inclined to support the wild-eyed lunatics that exist in any society. The Aquino administration is moving down this path with its recently announced 718 million peso in infrastructure investment in Muslim Mindanao.
The government's military defense needs to be strong-armed and intense, always directed toward rooting out the people who pack guns during the working day. This is a job for the army, and it should be looked at as a long-term obligation, rather like a long-distance run, carrying a back-pack and weapons. To the extent that the army can get familiar with modern warfare, using drones for example, the Philippines should continue to encourage the U.S. to be involved on the periphery.
This is not a conventional war to be won in some defining moment. It is long term drudge, but hopefully diminishing in scope.
In the meantime, investments in economic infrastructure should work from the outside in, squeezing the land that houses troublemakers into a smaller and smaller space. That is where the big dollars should be spent. Not in large armies and weapons that do little but rust.
NPA "Communist" Rebels
These are no longer political ideologues with weapons and a high-minded sense of purpose. They are disenfranchised extortion racket gangsters. Accordingly, the countering force should not be the military, but the NBI in concert with the PNP. Go after the leaders, jail or shoot the armed thugs. Use amnesty, undercover people and other traditional crime-fighting tactics. Certainly, army units can be called in if there are major concentrations of warriors to fight. But assign this "enemy" to the domestic crime-fighters.
Odds and Ends
These are unlikely to pose great risk to the Philippine peoples or national security. They simply need to be anticipated.
The pirate situation is known, and the Philippines should be one of many nations willing to police the sea lanes. The Philippines might also place military officers randomly on Philippine flagged ships, serving as a deterrent not unlike sky marshals who fly randomly on US domestic airline flights.
Because other defensive "force" needs are unknown, it is important to retain an emergency response and coordination center that performs: (1) passive information gathering, (2) active engagement (CIA type activities), and (3) coordination routines that can bring any or all military and police forces to bear on a given situation. The natural disaster response effort might be subordinate to this agency, to the extent that military forces are expected to commit to a given incident.
Authorities and responsibilities need to be clear.
End of New Year's Day musing . . . now about those New Year resolutions . . .