The Philippine Navy used to be Southeast Asia’s most equipped naval force. In fact, its more powerful neighbors such as Indonesia and Malaysia once looked up at the Philippines for assistance in developing their own navies back when they were just emerging nations in the 1960s.

But now, more than 40 years later, the Philippine Navy is one of the weakest forces in the region.

With an old, decripit fleet and a formidable yet ill-equipped marine corps, the Philippine Navy cannot stand a chance against the emerging and evolving security threats in Southeast Asia. It has been left behind by neighbors it once trained, who have now emerged as the regions most adept naval forces, capable of thwarting threats not only internally or regionally but also beyond their reach.

I have just received reports that the Royal Malaysian Navy has freed a hijacked tanker off the coast of Somalia securing both ship and hostages without the loss of life.
A strong Philippine Navy is integral in the country’security being an island nation, and an important component in its economic development. But with a stalled modernization, the Navy looks more of a liability these days than an asset. What brought about the stagnation of this once glorious fleet?

Our over-reliance in American security during the Cold War era has prevented the Philippines from establishing a homegrown navy. While it was indeed the most well-equipped navy in the region in the 1960s, most of its ships and equipment were donated from the United States and its allies. This donor-recipient relationship between the country and the West proved to unsustainable and collapsed after the United States was forced to dismantle its bases in the country by 1990. When the Americans left, the Philippine Navy was left with a few aging patrol boats and corvettes as souvenirs.

To fill the security vacuum created by the US withdrawal, the Philippine Congress drew up plans for the modernization of the Armed Forces (AFP). Ideally, the plan was the purchase newer ships, aircraft, tanks and other military hardware to maintain the Philippines’ status as the leading armed force in Southeast Asia and to thwart the ever increasing threat of insurgency being concocted by Communists and Islamic extremists in various parts of the country. But embezzlement of government funds by some of the most corrupt minds in the military chain of command has stalled this modernization to the point of left behind which leads us to the navy of today.

With the shift to an administration whose platform is to stamp out corruption in the government bureaucracy, there remains hope that the modernization of the armed forces, especially of the Navy, will roll once more. Currently, the Navy has some bright new ideas for replenishing its fleet.

I just received word that the Navy is planning to acquire a Hamilton class cutter from the US Coast Guard – their largest acquisition to date. While still second-hand, the Hamilton has been to a massive rehabilitation program prior to its purchase Navy. Designed for speed and high endurance, the Hamilton could fill the need for a stronger naval presence in our exclusive economic zone, particularly in the Kalayaan Group of Islands. And with its retractable hangar and helicopter landing deck, this ship could also prove to be effective during search and rescue operations. The Navy says the purchase of the Hamilton is just the first in its planned acquisition of more ships from the same class.

Kudos to the Navy for this development! Let us hope that this could be the start of something good.

However, the Philippine Navy is yet to be at par with the arms race brewing in Southeast Asia. The Republic of Indonesia Navy, Royal Malaysian Navy and the Republic of Singapore Navy has been doing a great job at modernizing its navies, especially in the use of indigenous knowledge and talent in developing their own weaponry. They have shown good retention of what the Philippine Navy has taught them by now leading anti-piracy countermeasures not just in the region but also in other places, as shown in the RMN’s latest maneuver in the Gulf of Aden. All three have to potential to become blue water navies someday.

The Philippine Navy should not be outdone. The purchase of Hamilton class cutters is just a step in a multitude it needs to take to be a force to be reckoned once more. What the Navy needs at this moment is rapid deployment on land, air and sea, particularly in sea areas where we really need a show of force. And a show of force doesn’t necessarily entail a large number. In the modern navy, strength doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have the numbers. A few capital ships would be enough – ships that are capable of rapidly deploying aircraft, patrol vessels and marines. What the Navy needs are multi-role vessels in the form of Amphibious Transport Docks (ATDs) or Landing Platform Docks (LPDs).

There are a number of ways the Navy could acquire such vessels, either new or second-hand. First is through government-to-government transactions or to commission a private company (most preferably a local company) to build one for the Navy. ATDs and LPDs are versatile in a way that it can deploy a variety of vessels to respond to both internal and external threats as well emergencies. It can send out attack or transport helicopters, launch air-cushioned or rigid-hulled amphibious vehicles during amphibious assaults or relief missions, and can even deploy unmanned drones for intelligence or counter-insurgency work. By acquiring these capital ships, the Navy is embracing its mandate of defending our coastlines while being readily available to respond in times of natural or human emergencies.

The Philippine Navy and Marine Corps is more or less ready to respond to threats of piracy. And yet, in the standoff in the Indian Ocean between pirates and the multinational force where Filipino hostages figure the most, our Navy doesn’t have a presence. Once equipped with the necessary capital ships, our training will be put to use.

In a nation composed of 7,107 islands, a mere flotilla would not be enough to ensure to safety of its citizens and the integrity of its territory. With appropriate vessels and hardware, proven training and experience, and integrity in the rank and file, the Philippine Navy is on its way back to its glory days.

Go Navy Fleet-Marine Team!