Philippines Eyes $35B In Military Modernization; To Acquire 1st Submarine Amid Chinese Threats

Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has reportedly approved the third phase of the military’s modernization, which involves the acquisition of the nation’s first submarine. The modernization aims to protect Manila’s sovereignty, which is currently under threat from China.

Once “Graveyard” For B-52 Bombers, US Deploys Stratofortress To Indo-Pacific Ahead Of Cope North Drills

Roy Trinidad, a spokesman for the Navy in the West Philippine Sea, stated on February 1 that the third phase of modernization showed a change in focus from internal to external defense. Manila refers to that part of the South China Sea located inside its exclusive economic zone, the West Philippine Sea.

“We may not be a large navy…but we would have a navy that will take care of our territorial rights and sovereignty,” Trinidad said. According to Trinidad, the third phase of the modernization plan, revised to suit the nation’s demands better, is expected to cost 2 trillion pesos (US$35.62 billion) and be implemented over several years.

Although Trinidad could not specify how many submarines the Philippines planned to purchase, he stated there would “definitely be more than one.”

Although the specific details of the acquisition have not been revealed, the decision follows a tense few months for Manila as Beijing’s forces have become increasingly aggressive, with several recent incidents triggering escalation concerns.

The Chinese Coast Guard and Filipino vessels have locked horns several times in the past few months while the latter were on missions to replenish their warship “Sierra Madre,” which was run aground decades ago and has since served as a Philippine military outpost in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal which has rapidly emerged a big flashpoint between the two sides. This has necessitated a more robust and combat-capable Filipino military.

The third part of the Philippines’ military modernization plan will focus on strengthening military capabilities in the West Philippine Sea, among other things. The first and second phases of the plan were “land-centric.” According to Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, acquisitions under the third phase will concentrate on various capabilities, including intelligence, domain awareness, and deterrence in maritime and aerial space.

Dragging the name Horizon 3, the third phase of the military’s 15-year modernization plan calls for the purchase of multirole fighter jets, radars, two more frigates of the Jose Rizal class, missile systems, helicopters, and the nation’s first submarine fleet.

Although the purchase of other systems, like F-16s, has made headlines recently, the plans to acquire submarines have been on the table for a long time now, especially as the country’s primary area of engagement with its rival and adversary China ought to be at sea and submarines provide a capability that surface ships cannot.

Commodore Ajay Jai Singh, a retired submariner from the Indian Navy, previously told the EurAsian Times: “They (Filipinos) must counter the Chinese CG and maritime militia. An overtly hostile presence could lead to unintended consequences. A submarine capability will restrict Chinese options if they intend to use force to get their way in the disputed waters. Any augmentation of the SE Asian navies to counter the Chinese threat would be an effective deterrent.”

This follows a similar approach taken by Taiwan, which fears a potential Chinese invasion in the future. Taiwan launched its first domestically-made diesel-electric submarine, Haikun, in September last year. With another boat under production, it plans to build ten more vessels for a credible naval deterrent against China.

Taiwan launched the Haikun submarine at the Kaohsiung shipyard on September 28

While the Philippines could buy a submarine to increase its naval power, Taiwan had to build one from scratch. The world community appeared hesitant to sell the self-ruled island state a sophisticated war machine as they remained committed to the “One China” principle and feared provocation with Beijing.

Taiwan’s decision to build and induct submarines aimed to fend off any attempt from China to encircle Taiwan for an invasion or impose a naval blockade. 

The Philippines fears that China could invade the shoal, a resource-rich waterway that acts as a primary shipping corridor. The decision to acquire submarines, thus, appears to be a part of a bigger plan as military confrontations with Beijing and the latter’s relentless assaults have hinted that it is unlikely to back off any time soon.

Additionally, two other Southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnam and Indonesia, who also remain marred in territorial disputes with China, already have their respective submarine programs. The Philippines has said on multiple occasions that it wishes to bolster its military power to keep up with other countries in the region.

Submarines To Strengthen Philippines Military 

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stated in May that while he would prefer to concentrate on strengthening anti-submarine capabilities, his country has received offers for submarines from several nations.

In June last year, the French Naval Group, which has emerged as one of the top submarine manufacturers in the world, offered its Scorpene submarines to turn the Philippines Navy into a significant force.

Scorpène-class submarine - Wikipedia
Scorpène-class submarine – Wikipedia

Reports indicated that the Philippine Navy had already sent personnel to France for training before procuring the submarines. This suggested that the Naval group could be in the pole position with its Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines (SSK) on offer. Other countries to have bought this war machine include Brazil, Chile, India, and Malaysia.

The offer from Naval Group consists of three main parts, focusing on creating and maintaining the Philippines’ first submarine force. According to a document that the Naval Group sent to Naval News, these elements include the construction of Naval Operating Base Subic, staff training, and two Scorpène-class submarines.

Another significant offer came from the South Korean Hanwha group in September 2023. Hanwha Ocean released their enhanced proposal stating that the vessel is modeled around the KSS-III submarine built by Hanwha Ocean for the Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN). The proposal, known as the Jangbogo-III PN submarine, was presented as a computer-generated image (CGI) around that time.

KSS-III submarine - Wikipedia
KSS-III submarine – Wikipedia

A company statement read, “Building upon the success of the Korean Navy’s (RoKN’s) Jangbogo-III submarines, Hanwha Ocean’s proposal, the Jangbogo-III PN (Philippine Navy), offers a proven platform that delivers unparalleled operational capability.”

A Spanish state-owned company, Navantia, also offered the Philippine Navy a US$ 1.7 billion proposal to create a submarine fleet in August 2023. The proposal, according to Navantia’s representative Guillermo Zamarripa, supports the Philippines’ goal of self-producing defense requirements by including two S-80 Isaac Peral class submarines, comprehensive crew training, and technology transfer. 

In addition to these, Italian and Russian manufacturers had also, in the past, offered submarines to the Southeast Asian nation.

Despite its intention to acquire, the country’s meager defense budget had left the submarine plan in limbo. The projected cost of obtaining two submarines is anticipated to be between 70 and 100 billion Philippine Pesos, or US$1.25 billion and US$1.80 billion. However, the program is expected to get going with the Marcos administration ready to leap.