10 March, 2013


 (The Philippine Star)
The “excursion” of Sultan Jamalul Kiram’s “royal” security forces into Lahad Datu is one more major problem faced by our military which, for so long, has been perceived as one of the weakest among nations in Southeast Asia. To intel observers, the fact that a big number of armed men were able to sail virtually undetected to Sabah showed a disturbing “failure of intelligence” on the part of the Philippine military, in particular our naval forces and the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom). 

Not long ago, newly appointed Army chief Lt. General Noel Coballes himself said — during his stint as Westmincom chief — that the technology and training provided by the Americans is complemented by the fact that “we have good human intelligence on the ground so we have a good picture of where, when and how the enemy will strike.” Apparently, our military intelligence missed out on the excursion party planned by the Kirams, outbound as the men were. And despite the denials of current Westmincom chief Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, one cannot discount the possibility that more Tausugs or Suluks might have really sailed to Malaysia to help their besieged brothers, as claimed by former ARMM governor Nur Misuari. 

 Ironically, the Philippines is supposed to have a National Coast Watch System (NCWS) to monitor the movement of vessels that go in and out of our maritime territory. The NCWS is a network of coastal radar stations in Eastern and Western Mindanao — an offshoot of the Coast Watch South or CWS which is a major component of a defense project started sometime in 2008 between the Philippines and the US (with support from Australia) to promote the country’s “maritime domain awareness” particularly in the waters of Mindanao. 

In July last year, the NCWS figured prominently during the 18th Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises between the United States and the Philippines, participated in by about 1,000 troops from both countries’ Navy and Coast Guard. At the time, Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao chief Commodore Philip Cacayan (now AFP deputy chief of staff for personnel) even noted that the coast watch system enables the Navy to monitor all vessels, big or small, fast or slow, with or without computers, going in and out of our waters. Yet it is so strange that no one detected any unusual movement or abnormality — like perhaps the high number of small watercraft from Sulu or Tawi-Tawi sailing towards Sabah on the second week of February. 

 As summed up by defense expert Dr. Peter Chalk (senior analyst at the US think-tank group RAND) in his report titled “Sealing the ‘back door’ in the Philippines,” the main operational task of Coast Watch South is to counter threat groups including the NPA, the Abu Sayyaf, renegade MILF and MNLF members and criminal elements through surveillance of the Philippines’ maritime territory — noting that our porous borders have been a “major conduit” for terrorists, firearms and drug smugglers, human traffickers, pirates and other criminals. In fact, a lot of notorious foreign terrorists have been frequent “visitors” in the South — such as World Trade bomber Ramzi Yousef, 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and Bali bomber Dulmatin of the Jemaah Islamiyah. 

It’s an open secret that anyone who wants to escape justice can simply use the “backdoor” to go to Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia — with Sabah being a favorite destination not only because of its proximity but due to the lax security which many are aware is deliberate because of the so-called “Project IC” of the scandal-ridden Malaysian government to bring in “flying voters” by giving “identity cards” to illegal immigrants — majority of whom are Filipino. 

The Lahad Datu incident obviously also exposed Malaysia’s security lapses and operational weaknesses, with five battalions (about 3,500 soldiers) sent to go after 200 men. There are allegations however that the standoff was “encouraged” by the UMNO party of Prime Minister Najib Razak to create a situation that would turn them into heroes in the eyes of Malaysians — in the process weakening the popularity of the opposition led by former deputy minister Anwar Ibrahim. 

There is no doubt the Aquino government has made a lot of inroads domestically with its “daang matuwid” — but the “daang palabas” on the international front needs a lot of attention now despite the recently signed New AFP Modernization Act aimed at boosting the government’s shift from internal security operations to territorial defense. Sadly, corruption scandals have tainted the image of the Armed Forces in the past decade, with a recent Transparency International study naming the Philippines one of the most corrupt in the defense sector. 

No question it will take a lot of resources to boost our maritime fleet. Currently, we only have about 70 Navy assets (only two operational frigates — the rest are old patrol vessels). Despite the recent acquisition of four choppers and 18 trainer aircraft, the Philippine Air Force continues to suffer from an “all air, no force” image. 

The road towards AFP modernization will be long and arduous, but more than ever this is something we urgently need to do. We may count on allies like the US to help us achieve a minimum credible defense posture, mostly in terms of intelligence sharing, training and joint exercises, but at the end of the day we are on our own especially with the US armed forces facing budget cuts.

Clearly, we have to start by building a strong intelligence network around our porous borders and identify vulnerable spots. Heaven forbid, one day we might just wake up with foreign soldiers in the middle of Metro Manila — coming in like “a thief in the night.”

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