What the Philippines can learn from the South China Sea and Ukraine crises

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The Philippines must shoulder a bigger role in providing security for the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy file photo)
The Philippines must shoulder a bigger role in providing security for the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy file photo)

HONOLULU, March 21, 2014 — The modern world that emerged from the end of the Cold War and the disastrous terrorist attacks of 9/11 has deceived the United States and her traditional allies into assuming that war between states was a thing of the past. As the world sees Russian advances in Eastern Europe and Chinese power plays in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. partners such as the Philippines should use these watershed events as case studies for developing stronger defense policies.

“The U.S. will never face another peer threat” — a flawed doctrine

After 9/11, countless pseudo-academics at prestigious Western universities and think tanks claimed future military engagements would revolve around counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism and police actions against genocide. In military journals, officers penned articles asking why carriers with flight decks loaded with fighters and dedicated attack aircraft were necessary when amphibious warfare ships would be better suited if an expeditionary commander’s mission was simply dealing with third world nations with no air forces.

During the 2012 presidential elections, President Obama re-affirmed his 2008 campaign promises to restructure the military to address “new” forms of warfare, particularly in the area of special forces, cyberwarfare and drone development. The American people were told in 2012 that the Army supposedly “didn’t know what to do” with things like tanks and wanted more special forces and UAVs.


When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested the U.S. Navy was shrinking and at its weakest ever, Obama sarcastically replied “we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.” The “new” U.S. military, which operates on the clichéd banner of “leaner, lighter, faster” supposedly is more capable and powerful with its cyber weaponry, littoral combat ships and unmanned aircraft — all scaled for fighting small regional threats and lightly armed terrorists.

One can only imagine the shock that U.S. policymakers had when last year China announced it was declaring wide swaths of the South China Sea as part of its territorial air defense identification zone, a move reminiscent of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s infamous “Line of Death” which lasted during the late 1970s and mid-80s.

Instead of the U.S. military facing ill-equipped terrorists or backward Iranian forces that it could harass at will with propeller drones, China forced the Obama Administration to play on classic peer military terms with jet fighter aircraft and naval vessels.

This year, U.S. policymakers and defense planners were again shocked when Russia responded to Ukraine’s revolution by suddenly marching hundreds of thousands of troops and heavy military vehicles into the Crimean peninsula in just a few days. Ukraine, with its token military forces, must have remembered Georgia’s experience in the 2008 South Ossetia War, and what it could not accomplish on the battlefield it sought to do through rhetoric, politics and international sympathy.

The international community may support Ukraine and bemoan the Russian annexation of Crimea, but cry as they might, one thing is clear: Putin is keeping Crimea. The message that is becoming clear in 2014 is that decisive leaders with strong military forces determine the future of their neighbors. The lessons of the Peace of Westphalia may have been forgotten by academics, but its rules of war and statecraft will never die.

The Philippines must take an active role in Asian security

Rotate the globe in your mind a hemisphere over to the Pacific. In the Philippines, a bizarre dichotomy exists in which the archipelago state represents one of the most strategic regions in the Asia-Pacific region yet is lightly defended and woefully vulnerable in comparison to neighboring military forces. In 2009, when I had the chance to meet a senior civilian member of the Philippine government at a diplomatic reception in Hawaii, I mentioned how the PAF had retired its F-5 fighter aircraft and had been left only with modest attack trainers and propeller aircraft to defend its airspace.

“In light of fact that China, Indonesia and others in the region are modernizing their air forces and acquiring stand-off air launched missiles,” I asked, “aren’t you concerned that the lack of any supersonic multirole fighters will put you in a pickle if there are territorial disputes over the oil rich islands in the near future?”

He smiled and answered, “Those are external defense platforms you’re talking about. High tech weapons. My country needs internal defense platforms. Low tech weapons. External defense is not a priority. What we need now are attack aircraft that can fly low and slow. Propeller planes. Things that can get in the weeds and stay on station for long periods of time. We need more cargo planes like the C-130 that can land and take off on short, undeveloped areas. And most of all, we need more troops to fight terrorists.”

In recent months, China has been more aggressive in deploying its military near Philippine waters and airspaces. It’s no accident that the Philippine government today has once more warmed up to U.S. military forces on their soil; without credible “external” security and armed only with “low tech” systems, the Philippines must rely on U.S. babysitting to sustain its territorial sovereignty.

Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and especially India have all recognized the need to parry China’s rise as a hemispheric power. What is lacking is a strong Philippines, and that vulnerability not only makes the U.S. security relationship overwhelmingly one-sided, but leaves the Philippines open to attack in the future.

As a person of Filipino heritage, I completely understand the tenderhearted, open and trusting nature of Filipinos towards their neighbors. Nevertheless, the changing economic, industrial and military dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region make defending the strategic value and territorial sovereignty of the Philippines absolutely necessary for the second and third decades of the 21st century.

The Philippines needs to change its fiscal priorities and invest in military platforms capable of enforcing air and sea sovereignty. A top emphasis in particular should be placed on acquiring airborne early warning and maritime patrol aircraft. This not only ensures the Philippines can avoid being bullied by China in territorial disputes, but also makes for a more competent ally in the U.S.-Philippine security relationship.

As it is, both China and Russia are already routinely testing the air defenses and sovereignty of U.S. allies. In the last months of 2013 alone, the JASDF had to scramble fighters to intercept airspace intrusions by PLAAF aircraft close to 200 times. Russia has also routinely sent strategic bombers to test the airspaces of multiple European allies and even the U.S. military forces in Guam.

Contrary to the “wars of the future will be low tech, tight in cities and dirty” assertions of U.S. academics, longitudinal evidence points to increasing militarization of aerospace and sea. Both China and Russia hope that the United States and her allies shun high tech weapons and fall into the deception of preparing for low intensity conflict. Both China and Russia would love nothing more than for the U.S. and her allies to beef up more “troops” – that is, light infantry and special forces – rather than aircraft, naval vessels and tanks because that is one area that they can easily defeat Western powers through sheer numbers.

Is the Philippines the next place where China will test its swelling power projection capability?  That is a question that neither the Philippines or U.S. planners should wait to answer. The Philippines needs to look at world history and prepare for the future.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from Amazon.com.
  • It seems to me that the Philippine military needs to rethink their military purchases in a more original and unique manner to meet the new technologies of other nations. For instance, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on second rate jets and outdated ships should be a no-no.

    Instead, combine commercial technologies and create some new innovative and effective defense weapons such as: But commercial hydroplanes with oceanic speeds up to 300 miles an hour. Fit them with LRAD’s (Long Range Acoustic Device) to deter Chinese ships from harrassing Filipino fishermen or purchasing some of their privately owned landing craft used for ferries, and outfitting them with Katyusha rocket launcher, as well as spot lights on their helicopters. Commerical submarines can be bought for as low as $1 million dollars and outfitted with cheap yet totally effective weaponry – creating new innovative military hardware – that will raise eyebrows – for pennies on the dollars on what they would pay for outdated second hand military hardware from the U.S.A., Korea, and Japan. The same goes for jets.

    Many people forget that Alexander the Great fought and prevailed against the Persians whose armies were 5 times larger. The reason was he created his defenses and attacks from outside of the “books” on warfare. The Philippines should do the same.

    • Jennifer

      Alexanders war is different.

      It is fought by swords and spears. Modern warfare is totally different. Tactics and strategies does make a difference.

      But comparing ancient warfare to know is not applicable.

      • I disagree with you Jennifer, as Alexander’s victory was based on positioning of weapons and troops in strategic areas of the battlefield to create opportunities to prevail. It. Applying that to today’s world is quite appropriate. Yes, asymmetrical warfare – with new innovative ideas can change the outcome of the war if a small nation prepares properly. Look at the U.S. Marines and how many times have they prevailed against larger numbers? There is a reason for that and it is based on historical applications of war – refined and fine tuned.

        • Pepe Latoga

          I strongly agree on asymmetrical warfare.Philippines cannot engage China ships for ships.It does not have even a squadron of fighter planes. It is ordering (2) new Frigates which takes 2 years to build and that number is pitifully not enough. In can be made into a TARGET PRACTICE by Chinese Air force. In that span of years, lots of things will happen. China did not even think about Vietnam’s military capability. Vietnam has 6 modern Frigates and 3 squadrons of mixed SU27 Sokhois and Mig’s. It has also I believed (4) new submarines to date. Vietnam was not able to hold the launching of a giant Deep Sea Drilling Rig. Pretty soon, the Chinese will also do the same on areas declared by Philippines as their territory.The Philippines should invest in Anti Ship Missiles and Surface To Air Missiles as soon as possible while waiting for another armaments to come.

    • DannydeGracia2

      Hi Grin, thanks for that insight, a similar idea to what you mentioned was proposed in USNI Proceedings Magazine in April 2012 to create a “Spanish Ulcer” for China by mounting mobile ASCMs in various locations (i.e. Northern Luzon) with “shoot and scoot” capabilities. You might want to check it out – it’s called “Asymmetric Warfare, American Style” by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes.

    • Pepe Latoga

      Somebody had already suggested a Mobile Anti Ship Missiles to be deployed in Palawan Islands and the Northern Part of Luzon Island. The Philippines does not need an aircraft carrier. The islands itself can be turn into an aircraft carrier since some of the islands are very near or in strategic range for the Missiles to hit any ships or flying intruders. What the Philippines need ASAP Mobile land based Anti Ship Missiles and Surface To Air Missiles to check all those intruding ships and air crafts in West Philippine Sea. The Philippines strategy is still hoping that diplomacy will rein in China which I doubt.China is promising peace and stability while also doing another thing.

  • Conservative Mark

    If I didn’t know better, I would almost guess we have a Muslim usurper in the White House who wants to weaken our nation for a possible takeover. Oh wait, I don’t know better!

  • In recent American history we have NEVER been fully prepared for threats that have emerged. Just as our enemies will NEVER attack our strengths, they will search out our weak points. Or opportunistic lesser powers will take their chances that our diplomatic, civil nation will not respond “in kind” to their unconventional or savage acts.

    Pax Romana is the history lesson we should all know. Translated and transposed into the modern idiom: “Peace through superior firepower”.

    • DannydeGracia2

      Agreed.

  • Persuasive

    Obama doesn’t even realize that bayonets and other hand held defensive and offensive implements are standard for not only the military, but for the boy scouts and other survivalists. Out in the jungle of warfare, wherever that may be, essential tools are needed for multifarious uses. Our president has made one bone-headed decision after another, with only an occasional respite in between. Someone who has never had to earn a living, make an honest contribution to society based on a value added means of production lives in their own mind as a god unto themselves and those who give him the sort of praise he revels in. Now we all must take of this bone soup diet he has created for the good of apologizing to imagined nations he believes are much greater then his own.

    • Paul Singh

      You need to understand as a community organizer Obama didn’t have time for boy scouts or feel it his duty to serve in the military. I feel he’s the ultimate of somebody taking advantage of the system, or the 180 degree opposite of Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Obama did the first part and now is saying, “ask not what I can do for you but what you can do for me.” He’s willing to throw the whole country under the bus because he feels this country deserves it.

  • Sandra Manzi

    Love obama and his destruction of our GREAT COUNTRY… one has power by force, MILITARY… a country isn’t overrun by electronics.It’s done with MILITARY POWER….ask any DICTATOR!!!!! CHINA,RUSSIA, COLUMBIA,CUBA…..