With Israeli missiles, Philippine navy takes step toward modernization

Spike surface to surface missiles to be deployed on assault vessels for first time, but island nation’s maritime forces still far behind other Asian countries

Members of the Philippine Navy Seals, right, maneuver during an anti-terrorism drill at the country's most famous beach resort island of Boracay, in central Aklan province, Philippines on April 25, 2018. (AP /Aaron Favila)
Members of the Philippine Navy Seals, right, maneuver during an anti-terrorism drill at the country's most famous beach resort island of Boracay, in central Aklan province, Philippines on April 25, 2018. (AP /Aaron Favila)

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine navy will deploy its first-ever missile-firing assault vessels in about three months, likely for territorial defense, anti-insurgency strikes and deterrence, but it remains “centuries” behind the naval might of Asian countries such as China, the navy chief said Thursday.

Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad told a news conference that the navy also plans to acquire torpedoes, submarines and other major defense equipment under a modernization program to bolster the security of an archipelago with one of the world’s longest coastlines and to combat piracy and other cross-border crimes.

The Israeli-made missiles, which have a range of 8 kilometers (5 miles), are being installed in three multipurpose attack vessels which were acquired earlier and will be ready for deployment in two to three months, he said.

He declined to say how many of the surface-to-surface missiles, called Spike ER, the navy has acquired from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.

“It’s a new capability of the navy and since this is our very first missile capability, we really have to study how to operate and where to deploy our ships,” Empedrad told reporters after a maritime security forum in Manila.

“Naval warfare has become missile-based and we cannot afford to be left behind … we cannot afford to just use a capability installed in our old ships,” he said. “We have to grow as a navy.”

Israeli-made Spike missiles are displayed during a street parade marking the 65th anniversary of the Armed Forces Day in Seoul, South Korea, October 1, 2013. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

The possible hotspots where the missile-armed vessels could be deployed include western Palawan province and the Zamboanga Peninsula in the country’s south, he said. Zamboanga is in a volatile region which faces threats from Muslim militants.

Palawan island faces the South China Sea, where the Philippines has been disputing ownership of a chain of islands, reefs and atolls with China, Vietnam and three other governments. Last week, CNBC reported that China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems in three areas — Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef — which Beijing has turned into islands with runways.

Vietnam has requested that China withdraw its military weaponry from the three man-made islands, saying its deployment y violates Hanoi’s sovereignty, increases tension and destabilizes the region. The Philippine government has expressed concern but has not voiced strong criticism of China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters.

Empedrad declined to comment when asked if the Philippine military has taken steps to verify the reported Chinese missile installation and if it plans to secure Philippine-occupied areas with anti-missile systems.

“We are centuries away or maybe years, decades away … compared to the naval capability of China,” he said when asked how prepared the Philippines was amid the reported Chinese threats in the hotly contested region.

The Philippine military, among the most ill-equipped in Asia, has struggled in recent years to modernize its navy, air force and army as it faces an array of national security and territorial threats.

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