On Thursday morning last week, the Philippine Air Force scrambled to fly its jets after an air defense radar detected an unknown plane intruding into the country’s airspace.
The air defense control center monitored the aircraft about 120 nautical miles northwest of Bolinao town, Pangasinan, flying at 21,000 feet above and speeding at 265 knots toward the northeast.
It did not identify itself as it entered the Philippine Air Defense Identification Zone (PADIZ), raising alarm bells as a potential threat, and forcing the air force to send its fighters from nearby Basa Air Base in Pampanga to intercept the unknown aircraft.
But four minutes before the two fighters could intercept the plane, it changed direction and headed north to move away, increasing speed to 400 knots to evade interception.
The Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Maynard Mariano, said the unknown aircraft did not respond to radio calls all throughout the time it was detected and monitored within the country’s airspace.
This was not the first time the air force had scrambled jets to challenge and intercept unknown foreign aircraft intruding into the country’s airspace.
In fact, a total of 367 intrusions into the country’s airspace were detected and monitored in 2020, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a House budget hearing.
However, he failed to identify the types of aircraft and whether these were civilian or military planes, as well as specify the country where they belonged.
Lorenzana highlighted external threats from these intrusions in seeking a bigger defense and military budget for next year.
President Rodrigo Duterte has requested nearly P300 billion in defense spending for 2022, to increase funds for maintenance and operation expenses by 7 percent to more than P53 billion.
Lorenzana said the defense sector was also asking for a 20-percent increase in its capital outlay next year to nearly P40 billion, to expand its capacity and capability to detect and monitor air and sea intrusions in the South China Sea, set up more littoral monitoring stations, install more radars, and build facilities.
The Philippines has a much bigger problem in maritime intrusions as nearly 64,000 incidents of foreign vessels that had violated the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) were reported last year.
Most of these vessels were from China, which has increased its presence in the West Philippine Sea by deploying navy, law enforcement, armed militia and fishing boats to the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
For nearly 30 years, the Philippines has been practically blind to what was happening in its maritime domain after the United States was kicked out of its two large overseas bases in Subic and Clark in 1992.
Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, the country has relied on the US military to provide a wider security umbrella, focusing on internal security threats as the government dealt with a twin insurgency – the Maoist-led New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas and the separatist Muslim rebels, and later the more violent and radical Islamist militants who aligned first with al Qaeda and later with the Islamic State.
The late president Benigno Aquino III restarted the ambitious P300-billion military modernization program in 2012 after the law authorizing a P150-billion program to upgrade military capabilities ended in 2010, without making any impact on the military.
Duterte has been reaping the fruits of the revitalized military modernization program, tweaking the program to buy ships, planes and other equipment to increase maritime domain awareness as tensions in the disputed South China Sea increased.
Three air defense radars — in Ilocos, Mindoro and Palawan — had been installed and three more are planned, including a Japanese-radar in Palawan, to improve coverage of airspace and detect incoming aircraft 400 miles away in the west.
The US had also assisted the navy and coast guard by building coast watch stations in the south and west to monitor surface movements. It had also donated ScanEagle drones to extend surveillance and reconnaissance coverage in the West Philippine Sea.
In the past five years, the air force and navy could only cover less than 50 percent of the South China Sea, allowing Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and other foreign vessels and aircraft to encroach into Philippine sovereign waters and airspace undetected.
In 1995, the Philippines woke up to discover a makeshift shelter in Mischief Reef, which has now expanded into an artificial island with an airstrip and secured ports, a fortress on sand in the South China Sea but well within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
With increased capacity and capability in the last two years, the Philippines discovered new challenges and problems as it was able to detect and monitor increasing intrusions in the West Philippine Sea.
It needed more operating funds to stop the intrusions, deploying more navy and coast guard vessels and sending more fighters to defend the airspace.
The air force did not say how many times it had scrambled fighters to intercept unknown aircraft flying into the PADIZ in a week or in a month, but this could wear them down.
It could also exhaust air force funds if it would frequently send aircraft to challenge intruders, which will wear down the pilots and planes as well.
The Philippines should learn from the experience of Taiwan which has been on constant alert as China tests its air and maritime defense.
In September last year alone, Taiwan scrambled to fly jets more than 100 times as Chinese fighters and bombers flew into its airspace. China’s People’s Liberation Army-Air Force aircraft have been flying menacingly toward Taiwan’s airspace almost every day, sometimes launching multiple sorties on the same day.
The waves of air and sea forays into Taiwan is a part of China’s “gray zone” strategy, an irregular type of warfare, which stops short of an actual shooting war. The aim is to subdue the foe through exhaustion.
The Philippines has seen this form of conflict in the West Philippine Sea as China knows the country has limited air and sea assets as well as funds to challenge maritime and airspace intrusions.
The Philippines is not ready against China’s “gray zone” strategy but it could address these intrusions with the help of security allies and partners, which could jointly patrol the South China Sea.
The United States, for instance, could provide real-time data from its satellite and sea and air assets patrolling in the region to detect and monitor intrusions into the Philippines’s airspace and maritime domain.
The Philippines still has no 100 percent coverage of the South China Sea but with US help, it can expand surveillance and reconnaissance of the area.
Constant freedom of navigation and overflights by the US, Australia, Japan and other allied countries in the South China Sea could also help counter China.
The Philippines is in a position to provide help to the US and allied countries to increase measures to counter China’s “gray zone” operations not only by participating in regular drills, but by allowing greater access to its air bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Under the Aquino administration, it has allowed the US Navy to use the former home of the 13th US Air Force in Clark to operate P3 Orion and later P8 Poseidon anti-submarine surveillance aircraft, giving the aircraft longer loiter time in the South China Sea and increasing their capability to counter China’s “gray zone” tactics.
Last week’s intrusion of an unknown aircraft will not be the last and with increased surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, the Philippines can detect more intrusions into its airspace.
It may not have the funds and assets to respond to the intrusions but it can depend on allies to help discourage these violations of the sovereign airspace and maritime domain.