Tracking the Philippines’ Force Build-up in the South China Sea

By Alexander L. Vuving —

Philippine Navy BRP Ramon Alcaraz and BRP Gregorio del Pilar with US Navy USS John S. McCain during CARAT Philippines 2014. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

Philippine strategic culture has combined a reliance on the United States for external defense and a focus on internal threats, especially the Muslim and Communist insurgents on the southern island of Mindanao. This has resulted in a chronic neglect of the navy, air force, and coast guard.

The Philippines’ force buildup trajectory shows a trend change in 2012-2013. Between 2007 and 2012, Philippine military spending remained at the same level, but it began to accelerate in 2012, growing 136 percent between 2012 and 2016. The trigger was a standoff in April-June 2012 with China at Scarborough Shoal, which lies 120 nautical miles off the Philippine coast.

China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 prompted the Philippines to pass a law to boost force modernization. But the Asian financial crisis of 1997 practically killed this legislation. A Capability Upgrade Program to implement the AFP Modernization Act of 1995 was constantly underfunded although it was reprioritized in 2005. The extension of the AFP Modernization Program was taken as one of the priority legislations in the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016. The standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal between April and June 2012 led to China’s de facto control of the reef and its surrounding waters. This prompted Manila again to pass, in late 2012, a new law (Republic Act 10349) that renews and accelerates the modernization of the Philippine Armed Forces.

Air Force

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) lost its last vestiges of air combat capability in 2002 and its last supersonic aircraft, the third-generation F-5, retired in 2005. Between 2005 and 2015, the Philippines possessed not a single modern combat aircraft. The PAF became combat-capable again only in 2015, when it received two light attack aircraft of the T-50 Golden Eagle family (the FA-50PH variant) from South Korea. However, the PAF continues to lack air superiority jet fighters.

In 2014, the PAF launched a modernization program called Flight Plan 2028. The plan called for capabilities to address incursions in between 50 percent and 75 percent of the territory by 2020 and the entire territory and EEZ by 2028. This appears to be extremely ambitious, as the Philippines possesses only 12 FA-50PHs in 2017. The PAF has plans to acquire six more FA-50PHs and 12 multirole fighters capable of air superiority.

Table 1. Major equipment of the Philippine Air Force

Type Platform Quantity Delivery Stationed Modernization
Light attack FA-50PH (T-50 Golden Eagle) 12 2x 2015,
2x 2016,
8x 2017
Basa No air defense platform b/t 2005-2015. Initial intent was for F-16C/D but FA-50 more cost efficient. Intent to acquire T-50 indicated 8/2012. Contract signed 3/2014, valued PHP 18.9 billion ($369 million). PH wanted 6x more.
Multirole fighter 12
Airlift C-130 Hercules 5 2x 1976,
1x 1991,
2x 2016
Long-range patrol planned 2 Program announced 5/2014, valued at PHP 6 billion ($116 million). Flight Plan 2028 requires 4x by 2022.


Although the Philippines has the world’s third longest coastline after Canada and Indonesia, most of its naval platforms have been in service for four decades with many of the navy’s larger ships even from the World War II era. If the inoperative assets are discounted, the largest ships of the Philippine Navy (PN) are three former U.S. Coast Guard cutters of the Hamilton class (3,250 tons). In addition to these three frigates, the PN also has five operational corvettes and two strategic sealift vessels.

In 2007, the PN launched a modernization program called Strategic Sail Plan 2020, which outlined the procurement of up to six frigates, 12 corvettes, 18 offshore patrol vessels, and three anti-mine ships. The program also called for the acquisition of strategic sealift vessels, landing craft, patrol gunboats, assault craft, maritime patrol aircraft, naval and utility helicopters, and submarines. The intention, indicated in 2011 and reiterated in 2013, was to acquire three diesel-electric submarines, possibly of the Kilo-class, from 2020. From a more realistic perspective, the Philippines is unlikely to have a submarine until 2025.

In December 2015, the PN received a boost for a program launched in 2013 to acquire two new-built frigates. In September 2016, a contract worth $337 million was awarded to South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries for two ships that would displace about 3,000 tons each and can be equipped with anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and anti-submarine weapons.

Table 2. Major equipment of the Philippine Navy

Type Class Size Quantity Commissioned Missiles Heli-copter Modernization
Submarine Diesel-electric, possibly Kilo-class


3 2025ff Studies to outline requirement indicated in 2011, reiterated in 2013, outlining intention to acquire 3x from 2020, but from 2025 more realistic.
Frigate Del Pilar (ex-Hamilton) 115m, 3250t 3 2011-2013-2016 SSM Agusta Westland Ex-CG cutters to replace WW2-vintage ships (orig. 2x, 1x left)
HDF-3000 114.3m, 3,000t 2 SSM, SAM 1x ASW Program launched 2013, received a boost 12/2015, tender updated 2/2016 for $380 million. 9/2016 awarded to Hyundai at $337 million.
Corvette Jacinto


62.6m, 775t 3 1984
Guided-missile corvette (ex-Po Hang) 1,240t 1x (ROK: 1986-1993) ASW ROK donation offered 2014 but declined due to China’s protest. Intent to acquire 1x announced in 4/2017. DND said may acquire up to 3x.
OPV 2 1x Request for info issued 2011, contract dated b/t 2017-21 budget plans. [Orig. 11x WW2-vintage corvettes, 8x left.]
Inshore patrol vessel Cyclone 51.9m,


1 1993
Strategic sealift (SSV) Tarlac 2 2016,


Tender issued 6/2013, replaced and downsized previous interest in amphibious multirole vessel program. Contract signed 6/2014 worth $92 million.


Coast Guard

An audit in 2008 found that 40 percent of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels were either temporarily not ready for sea or grounded. In 2009, only 11 ships larger than 100 tons were seaworthy, and their total displacement was a mere 3,800 tons. With this capacity, the Philippines had to use its largest navy ship to conduct law enforcement missions at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, resulting in a standoff with China. After the crisis, the government launched three major procurement programs to boost the capacity of the coast guard.

One of these programs involves 10 multi-role response vessels (MRRV) financed by Japan’s official development assistance (ODA). Talks on this program was concluded in 2013 and the first two 250-ton Parola-class MRRVs were delivered in October 2016, followed by a third in March 2017, a fourth in May 2017 and the last expected to be handed over by August 2018.

In another program, the Philippines purchases five new-built vessels from France, including one 82-meter offshore patrol vessel (OPV) and four 24-meter fast patrol boats. The 1,400-ton OPV is expected to be delivered in 2018. In 2013, the Philippines also intended to acquire a second-hand navy vessel from France for its coast guard, but the deal for the 375-ton patrol boat did not push through.

The third program resulted in an agreement signed in August 2016 during President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Japan. According to the deal, Japan will build for the PCG two 94-meter high-endurance MRRVs, the first of which is expected to be delivered by November 2020 and the second by March 2021.

With these ships, the PCG will have 22 vessels larger than 100 tons with a total displacement of 7,700 tons by the end of 2018. This represents a 103 percent growth in tonnage and a 100 percent increase in number of ships during 2008-2018.

Table 8. Ships larger than 100 tons in the Philippine Coast Guard

Type Class Displ. Com 2009 2016 2017 2018 2021
Offshore patrol, SAR MRRV 1700t 2021 0 0 0 0 2
OPV 270 1400t 2018 0 0 0 1
San Juan 540t 2000 4 4 4 4
Inshore patrol, SAR Tirad 275t 1977 1 1 1 1
Parola 250t 2016/18 0 1 6 10
Ilocos Norte 120t 2000 4 4 4 4
Palawan 118 1960s 1 1 1 1
Bouy tender Corregidor 730t 1998 1 1 1 1
Total # of ships 11 12 17 22
Tonnage 3763t 4013t 5263t 7663t 9563t

It is noteworthy that President Duterte’s about-face regarding the 2016 South China Sea rulings and his pivot to China do not significantly affect the Philippines’ force modernization. The 2012 standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal may prove to be a watershed in the evolution of the Philippine strategic culture, reverting a decade-long neglect of the air force, navy, and coast guard.

Dr. Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Follow him on twitter @Alex_Vuving. The views expressed in this article are his own. The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Ordaniel, Scott Bentley, and Mary Ellen Haug for their support during the research for this article.

This post is the third in a series by Dr. Vuving reviewing recent arms expenditures by South China Sea claimants Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.


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