The Submarine Acquisition Project of the Philippines
The evolving security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region where maritime disputes figure prominently has prompted states to enhance their defense capabilities. The Philippines, faced with a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, has shifted to an outward-looking defense posture; one that requires the acquisition of modern air and naval assets, and the development of new warfare capabilities to secure the Philippines' vast maritime domain.
With the rising need to address evolving security threats, the role of the Philippine Navy (PN) rises to prominence. Exercising full sovereignty over our territory and protection of our maritime interests necessitate a minimum credible defense posture for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). It is with strong conviction that no other platform or weapon system can provide the desired effect across the levels of strategic to tactical, except the submarine. The acquisition of submarine warfare capability will better equip the navy to fulfill its primary mandate on territorial defense, security, and stability. Submarines will enhance our maritime defense by effectively performing anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD), maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction, intelligence, and reconnaissance. The submarine is the most effective and the best killing machine in the Navy inventory, since at the end of the day, the best way to sink a ship is not to riddle it with holes on its deck, but to place a huge crack at the bottom; and only a submarine can do that.
Submarines are undetectable and could be anywhere patrolling around the West Philippine Sea to act firmly if necessary. Having an operational submarine at-sea will be a game -changer for the PN. Aggressors will have to take into consideration the probability of facing a submarine anytime, anywhere, without any warning; hence affecting their entire assessment of the tactical situation and their behavior.
The Philippine submarine will be equipped with a large number of weapons. It can infiltrate an enemy task force to hunt high-value assets such as Aircraft Carriers, Landing Helicopter Docks, Supply Ships and Cruisers, and provide decisive superiority with a single lethal hit. An enemy aircraft carrier will not loiter nor pass near the Philippine waters because the Philippine submarine might, could and would be there. A submarine capability will provide deterrence against aggressors, credibility to the PN, recognition of the AFP from other armed forces, and international respect towards the Philippines.
Rationale for Modernization
The acquisition of submarines and eventually, the development of submarine warfare is a boost to the Philippines’ defense build-up. Possessing submarines would allow the AFP to expand its area of operations, provide long-term deterrence and domain awareness on strategic hot spots, and a tool for A2/AD. “Submarines are often described as a weapon of choice for the weak to deter the strong. Many of the smaller economies in Southeast Asia have invested in conventional submarines to deter their neighbors”.
With the national leadership’s vocal support to the modernization of the AFP, the PN is initially eyeing two medium sized submarines. The price tag for the two assets is seventy billion pesos (PhP70,000,000,000.00). The amount may be too much for a developing country such as the Philippines whose defense spending remains less than 2% of its GDP, and is one of the lowest in the region. Considering that the Submarine Program would be funded from the AFP Modernization Fund, there are concerns that it would be competing with other priority projects of the AFP.
The Philippine Submarine Force is composed of three pillars, to wit: human resource; submarines; and submarine maintenance facilities. Aside from the acquisition of two submarines, the submarine project includes the training of the crew, the upgrade of infrastructures of the former Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction (HHIC) in SBMA to host the future submarine base, and the transfer of know-how and technologies to the PN. The pillars of submarine capability will ensure that the PN will achieve long-term autonomy to operate and sustain the submarine force.
Financing Scheme and Mode of Acquisition
The preferred financing scheme and mode of procurement under the government-to-government (G-to-G) approach would eliminate reliance on the Modernization Fund, and tap on other viable alternatives that could positively impact the Philippine economy. Given the high level of technical knowledge and the complex systems involved, the best option for the Philippines is the G-to-G approach anchored on very strong bilateral ties with a partner country.
Under the G-to-G approach, the Philippines could adopt a payment scheme via countertrade and extended soft loans so as to cushion the impact of the huge acquisition cost to the country’s coffers and preserve our foreign reserves.
Economics and Defense Investment
We should not be limited into looking at the Submarine Program as a defense investment but also as a promising venture that could positively impact the Philippine economy. The development of submarine capability would facilitate technology transfer and know-how to the Philippines by the partner country.
Tie up by the partner country with the local Filipino private sector involved in repair and maintenance including Research and Development (R&D) institutions is vital in sustaining the Submarine Program. The identification of these key industries can stimulate the growth of the local defense industry that can reduce our heavy dependence on foreign procurement. Tie up with the Philippine private sector would also provide local employment opportunities, value-added competency for the labor force, and enhance technology transfer into the country.
Partnership with the private sector is favorable for the Submarine Program since it is often assumed that private industries have greater expertise, innovation, and efficiency. More importantly, getting the local private sector onboard the program could pave the way for business entities to put investments in defense-related projects.
Economics and security are inextricably linked. Trade and business ventures thrive on a secure environment which the armed forces is duty-bound to provide. A strong economy not only has the capacity to strengthen its military but also increases a country’s bargaining power in the international system. The AFP’s modernization should be viewed in terms of the economics-security nexus wherein the operations of the armed forces in providing a secure environment can positively impact economic growth. Experts argue that economic growth allows the government to devote greater resources to national defense expenditure and therefore economic wealth is the foundation of national military power. Higher economic growth can strengthen the Philippines’ standing in the international community. The acquisition of modern platforms and development of capabilities are requisites for the Philippines’ aspiration of building a minimum credible defense posture.
Ultimately, the Philippine submarine offers the following strategic benefits to the defense of the country: sea control and denial, operational deterrence, mission accomplishment, psychological motivation and morale boosting effect for the defense sector, technological innovation and R & D, economic stimulus, and Filipino manpower competency enhancement.
Edwin Nera is the Chairman of the Philippine Navy Technical Working Group for Submarine Acquisition Project.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Philippine Fleet, the Philippine Navy, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense.