‘Threat is real’: Wescom chief says PH sovereignty at stake in bid for more military assets
MANILA, Philippines—“The threat is real.”
The Philippine military unit in Palawan in charge of sovereign patrols and protecting the West Philippine Sea, which is part of South China Sea inside Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), aired the need for what one officer said were “game changers,” or equipment that would help boost maritime patrols against incursions, mainly by China.
“We need to have additional capabilities in terms of detection, identification, interception and heliport operations,” said Vice Admiral Ramil Enriquez, Western Command (Wescom) chief, at an online forum hosted by the Philippine Air Force (PAF) on Wednesday (June 30).
Enriquez cited the need for deployable radars against incursions in Philippine air space.
He said the Wescom was “eagerly awaiting” the completion of a radar station to be built on Mt. Salakot in Puerto Princesa, the Palawan capital.
His command, however, would also want to “have forward-deployed air search radars as well as in our islands, considering that every minute, in the interception of unidentified aircraft, will only be in a matter of seconds or minutes.”
Mt. Salakot had been identified as an ideal site for PAF surveillance radars procured from Israel.
Enriquez said he knew the importance of air power in protecting the Philippines’ territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“Regardless of its high costs, it must be pursued vigorously,” said Enriquez.
“The threat here in the Western Command area is real. We need the said game changers for the protection of our last frontier,” he said.
In China’s crosshair
Seven Chinese man-made military bases in the Spratly Islands, built close to the Philippines, are considered as a threat by Philippine defense officials.
“A major challenge in the West Philippine Sea, at this time, is China’s increasing assertiveness,” Enriquez said.
The three biggest Chinese artificial islands’ locations— Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief)— are the “most strategic” because they create a “strategic dominating triangle” in the West Philippine Sea, said Enriquez.
These bases, which have 3-kilometer runways, can also launch aircraft to Palawan and inside the Philippine area of responsibility, he said.
“It could be noted that aircraft coming from these main installations of China can reach the Palawan mainland in a matter of minutes,” Enriquez said.
Chinese vessels continued to encroach in the West Philippine Sea as Beijing aggressively enforces its baseless claim to owning almost the entire South China Sea.
The presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef early this year prompted the Philippine government to increase the frequency of its air and sea patrols. But it also exposed challenges for the Philippine military in patrolling the area.
Enriquez said the Wescom has nine planned air routes to patrol its entire area of responsibility—which included the West Philippine Sea and the Palawan mainland, which is also being wracked by insurgency.
To cover a single area, Philippine military planes have to fly for about 15 hours or go on at least five sorties. By sea, it will take the Philippine Navy’s newest Rizal-class frigates 15 days to cover 75 percent of the Kalayaan Island Group, if there is unlimited fuel and other supplies.
“To cover it we have to fly nine ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) missions, if twice, 18, if thrice, 27,” said Enriquez.
“With the rate of the aircraft utilization due to their available operational flying time, the area, at most, is just flown with 27 ISR missions or just being covered three times,” he said.
This means there’s a gap of 10 days between patrols, which Enriquez said was far from the Wescom goal of air patrols on a weekly basis.
Critical areas, like Julian Felipe Reef and Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, are priorities but Enriquez said this leaves other areas inside Philippine EEZ not covered by patrols for longer periods.
“In a normal day wherein we don’t have maritime surveillance through aircraft, we normally have sightings of our Chinese maritime militia or fishing boats between 35 to 40 at any given day,” said Enriquez.
“But if one or two of our aircraft fly over the West Philippine Sea, we can easily get their number in the hundreds,” he said.
“It will take days for us to cover the water alone using sea craft. So it’s very much necessary to have the flight assets here in Western Command,” he added.
Aside from its own patrols, the Wescom also receives information from other sources like other friendly countries and the National Coast Watch System to increase maritime domain awareness.