When Robert Empedrad started his sea duties in the late 1980s, the Philippine Navy was practically a coastal patrol force with platforms older than their crew. It had mostly World War II-vintage warships, like landing ship tanks (LSTs), minesweepers and destroyer escorts.

About 20 years earlier, the Philippines was the envy of many Southeast Asian countries because it had the largest and most capable naval warfare force in the region. Many of its neighbors, including Malaysia and Singapore, had just won their independence from Western colonial powers.

Fast forward to the present. Singapore and Malaysia had overtaken the Philippines. These two smaller countries have missile gunboats and submarines. Indonesia and Thailand have the biggest naval forces and even Vietnam has missile-guided frigates and submarines.

It would probably take 10 more years before the Philippines could catch up and match the navies in the region. Only Laos has no naval forces as it is a landlocked country, bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

Earlier this month, Empedrad, now a vice admiral and flag officer in-charge of the Philippine Navy, was ecstatic after the Philippine Navy’s anti-submarine vessel, BRP Conrado Yap, a former Pohang-class ship donated by South Korea, detected a US Navy submarine off Palawan coast, the first time in more than 40 years.

“For the first time, BRP Conrado Yap was able to detect submarines while sailing Palawan,” Empedrad said, breaking the news to journalists. “They were able to detect a submarine. This is the first time for the Navy. It’s very exciting.”

But he did not say what kind of submarine it detected. The Americans operate nuclear-powered attack submarines which are quieter and submerged to much lower depths, where they cannot be detected.

Most submarines are powered by diesel-electric engines and could be easily detected because of their noise. Perhaps, the corvette acquired the signature of a remote-controlled unmanned underwater vehicle. In China, some of these underwater drones were caught in fishing nets by local fishermen.

Emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, the Philippines used to have a very credible surface warfare, minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. It had a large fleet of landing ships that ferried several battalions of Filipino soldiers to South Korea during a war as part of United Nations peacekeeping forces.

The navy’s decline began during the Marcos administration when the dictator began to focus on internal security threats posed by twin insurgencies – a Maoist-led rebellion by the New People’s Army (NPA) and a Muslim secessionist war from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the south.

It became a support unit to the ground forces, the Philippine Army and the Philippine Constabulary. Both the Navy and Air Force, which heavily rely on equipment, like ships and planes, were sidelined. Marcos also became dependent on the security umbrella provided by the United States, which had two large overseas military bases in Clark and Subic.

While other Southeast Asian countries invested on modern, faster and more lethal ships and planes, the Philippines neglected its naval and air forces, recruiting more frontline troops instead. As a result, soldiers’ pay and allowances ate as much as 70 percent of annual military spending, leaving practically no funds to buy new equipment.

Washington also made Manila too dependent on its second-hand equipment, like helicopters, transport planes and ships. When Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, most of the South Vietnamese navy vessels escaped to Subic and were transferred to the Philippines. These were old US Navy ships, remnants of World War II.

When the Americans abandoned the homes of the 13th US Air Force and 7th US Fleet in the Philippines in November 1992 after a Senate vote to abrogate the US Military Bases Agreement in September 1991, the Philippines was left naked, without air and maritime defense.

From the early 1990s until late last year, the Philippine Navy could not detect any sub-surface vessel circling the country. The US is not the only country operating submarines in the South China Sea and the Pacific area. China, Russia, Japan, Australia and even Southeast Asian neighbors, like Indonesia and Malaysia, had submarines playing cat-and-mouse game underwater.

“It’s very challenging to detect submarines,” Empedrad said, who is no longer surprised to learn a submarine was lurking below somewhere in the Philippines. “As I said before, if you remove the waters of the sea in the Philippines, you may see at least 50 submarines surrounding us.”

During the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the US Navy requested clearance from the defense department to conduct underwater survey and mapping in the Visayas and Palawan areas. The Philippines allowed the US Navy survey on condition that a team from its own NAMRIA would join the expedition and the US will share information. Nothing was heard of the project after it was completed.

Security experts believed the US was making an underwater map for submarine routes from the Pacific Ocean to the South China Sea as well as an underwater route west of the Philippines from Borneo to Japan. Lately, China has been conducting surveys east of the country in the Pacific Ocean as its survey ships were seen from the Philippine Rise in the north and down to the Surigao area and the Philippine trench. It could be doing what the US had done, but Beijing never requested permission from the defense and foreign affairs departments.

The Philippines would need more ships with anti-submarine warfare capabilities not only to detect hostile submarines but also challenge them. South Korea has promised to transfer another Pohang-class corvette and the defense department has planned the acquisition of two more brand-new corvettes to enhance its domain awareness capabilities as well as patrol its vast maritime borders.

The Navy said its annual budget allows only its ships and planes to patrol and cover about 40 percent of the South China Sea. It is necessary for the government to increase defense spending to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to fund the military’s modest modernization program. Other Southeast Asian countries spend more on their defense than the Philippines, which has been lagging behind in terms of equipment and capabilities.

In the 2020 budget, defense spending is roughly 1 percent of GDP, including the P25 billion allocated separately for modernization. The Philippines has planned a P300-billion, 15-year program to upgrade its military capability.

The modernization program was first planned during the administration of President Fidel Ramos but Congress only approved a P50-billion fund for the 15-year plan that did not take off, as the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

The money from the sale of military camps in the capital – Villamor Air Base in Pasay City and Fort Bonifacio in Makati and Taguig – were only enough to replicate the Army and Air Force headquarters and the rentals continued to contribute an average of P1 billion every year. The initial acquisition projects were stop-gap measures, a mixture of brand-new and second-hand equipment, like helicopters, rifles, communications and mobility equipment.

The real modernization began under the Arroyo administration and continued until the administration of Presidents Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte. Another law was passed in Congress under Aquino to re-start and re-prioritize the modernization program after the original law expired in 2010.

More brand-new equipment, like planes and ships, were acquired under Aquino and Duterte. The current administration also sought to diversify the sources of equipment by looking at hardware from Russia and other non-traditional suppliers.

The first short-range missile for the Navy’s smaller and faster Multi-Purpose Attack Craft (MPAC) was bought from Israel. Two landing docks, the largest vessels in the Navy, were supplied by Indonesia and its first missile-capable frigate will be delivered this year by South Korea.

Six Off-shore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) will be delivered by Australia and additional landing docks, corvettes, frigates and MPACs will expand the Navy’s 100-ship fleet, improving its strategic sealift, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare operations.

The Navy’s aviation group is also beefing up its surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities by acquiring more AW159 anti-submarine warfare helicopters. Empedrad said the AW159 helicopters would be fully integrated into the naval anti-submarine warfare by November this year as the Navy plans to acquire torpedoes and missiles.

The Philippines is now interested in French-made electric-diesel submarines but it would take years to train personnel and build a base to homeport the vessels. Hopefully, the Philippines can join Southeast Asia’s submarine club before the second modernization program ends by 2028.

By the next decade, the Philippines can go toe-to-toe with other Southeast Asian countries, improving its capabilities to defend its maritime borders and show its flag in waters beyond the region.


A veteran defense reporter and former correspondent of the Reuters news agency, Manny Mogato won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’s war on drugs.