Late last year, the Philippines provided seed funding for the purchase of the Indo-Russian BrahMos missile system. The contract for three batteries to be operated by the Philippine Marine Corps was signed by Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana in January, with delivery of the first systems expected in 2023.
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Gregory Poling called it AFP’s “most strategic buy”. [Armed Forces of the Philippines] has done over the years‘.
The Philippines has long wanted to procure land-based missiles as part of its military modernization program. While previous efforts failed due to “shifting priorities”, the need for these weapons was catalyzed by increased Chinese aggressive actions in the Western Philippine Sea; the most recent was the harassment of Philippine resupply efforts at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in November.
BrahMos is an impressive weapon, known as one of the fastest (supersonic and non-hypersonic) cruise missiles in the world. Its deployment could allow the Philippines to implement its own version of an anti-access/area denial strategy.
However, it would be premature to say that BrahMos alone is a game-changer. Due to restrictions imposed by the Missile Technology Control Regime (to which India is a signatory), BrahMos missiles supplied to the Philippines will be limited to a range of 290 kilometers (156 nautical miles). Although such a range is a first for the Philippines, it is not enough to cover the 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. Getting stuck on land launchers in an archipelago also limits the system’s strategic mobility.
Even at its limited export range, BrahMos must be supported by an effective intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system to find and track targets, and a command and control complex. control (C2) resilient to ensure command can use this. AFP’s C2ISTAR system is hampered by a still-developing C2 complex and a limited number of crewed vulnerable observation aircraft and drones. Even if fully operational, a C2ISTAR complex could be disrupted; in the event of war, an adversary would do everything possible to disrupt and destroy the Philippines’ C2ISTAR capabilities. Maintaining BrahMos’ deterrent capability will require not only building this complex, but also ensuring that it can withstand any attempt to degrade it in combat.
Possession of a robust C2ISTAR complex combined with BrahMos is also not sufficient to establish a reliable deterrent. To effectively deter an adversary requires the material ability to inflict “unacceptable damage” and the political will to fight. The first leads to questions of risk calculation and damage tolerance; the latter requires willpower and an understanding of the consequences of the use of weapons.
Although such analyzes are typically performed in the context of nuclear deterrence, these concerns are also relevant to conventional deterrence. In the case of the Philippines, conventional deterrence may well depend on the ability of the AFP to deter a possible fait accompli, in particular by the People’s Liberation Army, on all or part of the elements held by the Philippines in the group of Kalayaan Islands (Spratly Islands).
While China has yet to comment directly on the Philippines’ plans, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at a forum on China-Philippines relations held shortly after the announcement, pledged that China “will not use its strength to intimidate small countries”. China also donated an assortment of non-offensive equipment worth $19.5 million to AFP.
Perhaps China feels that it does not need to factor Philippine BrahMos into its equations. While AFP’s biggest modernization program plans call for five batteries, to say that’s not enough is an understatement given the scale of potential opposition.
Still, an AFP with BrahMos is better than an AFP without it, as it increases its chances of defending the country against external aggressors. This and other efforts to strengthen the defense of the Philippines – including maintaining alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries – should, to paraphrase Poling, keep coercion in the gray area instead of an open war.
The Philippine defense establishment must do more than just buy new weapons. The AFP must integrate BrahMos and other new capabilities into its operations, through war games and improved training.
The Philippines must continue to develop and improve its ideas and strategy to achieve its deterrence objectives. Tools such as the US Net Assessment Method, if appropriately adapted and updated to meet the unique needs, contexts and circumstances of the Philippines, can be helpful. It is also imperative to study China’s strategic culture and assess the Chinese Communist Party’s damage tolerance threshold.
The road ahead for the Philippines is difficult given its own complicated and inward-looking strategic culture. But for the country to make the most of its new purchases and safeguard its sovereignty, the Philippines must evolve its deterrence and strategic thinking now, while there is still time.