‘Aim small, miss small’

INDIRECTLY drawing lessons drawn from the still raging Russia-Ukraine war, the Army is beefing up both its air defense and offensive capabilities as it embarks on an ambitious plan to acquire various types of land-based missile systems under the multiphase modernization program of the military.

Closer to home and right within the country’s territory, the military’s primary ground forces want to ensure that they would have the means at least to defend the Kalayaan Island Group and the West Philippine Sea in a worst-case scenario against China, which had been tagged years ago as a security threat.

Elbit’s Atmos (Autonomous Truck-Mounted Howitzer System), a 155-mm/52-caliber self-propelled howitzer.

“We will build our missile capability,” declared Army Commanding General Lt. Gen. Romeo S. Brawner Jr. to the Business­Mirror, adding that arming and building the proficiency of the Army in handling missiles and other modern weaponry which goes with a modern army is one of the priorities of his leadership.

Local and international security experts and analysts have been pushing for the equipage of soldiers, noting that a credible defense posture is the only way the Armed Forces of the Philippines can at least deal with an aggressive China in the cluster of islands that the Philippines owns or possesses, but which Beijing disputes under its expansive claims.

During his first State of the Nation Address nearly two weeks ago, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr.  made it clear he will not “abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines,” with national interest as his “primordial guide.”

Land-based missile defense system

Bridge components of the armored vehicle-launched bridge units shipped to the Batangas Port,
Batangas City, on July 12, 2022.

BRAWNER said the Army will acquire weapons and develop its capabilities to defend the country by land in a modern-day war by acquiring various types of missiles that can fend off and shoot land, air and sea targets. These include anti-ship, anti-aircraft and ground-to-ground missiles.

He said the Army will acquire first the Indian-made Brahmos missile system, but this will not just be their first missile acquisition.

The military will take possession of its first battery of Brahmos by way of the Philippine Marine Corps that had already activated more than a month ago its Shore-Based Air Defense System (SBADS) Battalion under its Coastal Defense Regiment in anticipation of the first delivery.

The SBADS forms part of the Marines’ efforts to build a reliable coastal defense system that will protect strategic assets and infrastructure while providing it with the capability to defend its bases and assets from the air and mount coastal and island defense operations.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo S. Brawner Jr.: “We should have good missile defense systems. The ideal is, it should be enough to cover and defend the entire country.”

The plan for the Army to have the capability to fight battles in the air, land and sea may be grand, but Brawner said he was pushing it under  Horizon 3, the last phase of the military’s overall modernization program, which starts in 2023 and follows the Horizon 2, which will end this year.

The Army’s Horizon 3 projects principally revolve around air defense. Brawner plans to create Missile and Air Defense Regiments while also further beefing up the capability of the Army Aviation Regiment by adding to its existing air assets.

If Brawner has this flair for air operations, it is partly because he is a Special Forces by training, graduating on top of his class. He also topped his intelligence officer course and graduated second on top of the whole class of 1989 of the Philippine Military Academy where he was also its baron.

The Army chief holds three Masters degrees from Thailand; the European School of Management in Oxford, United Kingdom; and the United States Army War College in the US.

If the Army is taking lessons from the war in Ukraine, it is Kyiv’s stiff resistance by using portable weapons like man-portable air defense systems (manpads), drones and now the US-supplied high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), which Brawner wants to duplicate for the Philippine Army.

The HIMARS, which can hit targets more than 50 kilometers away, has been reported to be wreaking havoc on Russians by hitting them with precision, and in the process, slowing down their advance and cutting off their supply routes in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The HIMARS has been a fixture in the military exercises between the US and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and just recently, it was seen in the home province of the President in Ilocos Norte during the exercise of the Philippine Marines Corps with its US counterparts.

Brawner said he wanted the Army, which has taken stock of Israeli-supplied unmanned aerial systems in its C4ISTAR (commander and control, computer, communication, intelligence, target acquisition and reconnaissance) project to be equipped with manpads, missiles and other platforms.

Beefing up the Army’s two regiments

AS part of the Army’s capability buildup, Brawner moved to fully equip and arm the Artillery Regiment and the Aviation Regiment, both of which he steadily built and supported as the Army chief. He made the Aviation Regiment a permanent unit from being a provisional one when it was formed in 2019.

While the Aviation Regiment maintains a current fleet of fixed-wing aircraft for special aviation missions as it further developed its capabilities in armed reconnaissance, air assault and medical evacuation using rotary-wing aircraft, its air assets will be augmented in order to become more agile, lethal and versatile.

Among the additional assets eyed for the unit are attack helicopters, armed reconnaissance helicopters and multipurpose medium-lift helicopters, allowing it to conduct a wide array of aviation operations in support of ground forces and strengthening the military’s overall defense posture.

Brawner also activated four months ago the Army’s 1st Tank Battalion of the Armor Division to provide infantry and mechanized infantry forces with advance firepower capability and enhance the soldiers’ standards of protection in conducting contingency missions and combined arms and joint operations.

The battalion was initially equipped with newly acquired and even upcoming assets such as the 18 Sabrah ASCOD light tanks, Pandur 8×8 wheeled light tanks, a command vehicle, a recovery vehicle and a tank gunnery simulator.

Israel’s Elbit System, the same company that refurbished the Army’s older tanks and armored personnel carriers and improved their weaponry systems, manufactures the Sabrah ASCOD tanks.

In June this year, a new battalion was created for the Artillery Regiment, the 10th Field Artillery Battalion, and it was bequeathed with the newly delivered Soltam 155m/52-caliber self-propelled howitzers from Elbit, which also delivered M125A2 armored mortar carriers.

Brawner wanted to further reinforce the Army’s firepower. As such, it will acquire additional mounted howitzers, light tactical vehicles, including tanks and other land-based platforms.

“We need to have additional light tanks,” the Army chief said.

“In Marawi, we used howitzers for indirect fire instead of light tanks,” he recalled, referring to the military’s battle against Islamic State fighters, which occupied the city in 2017.

Tactical engagement

AS it sustains its capability buildup, the Army is also strengthening and fostering its partnership and tactical engagements with its army allies from the United States, Australia, Japan and those in Southeast Asia.

Just days ago, Brawner and the commander of the Philippine Marines signed an updated terms of reference with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force covering training and other engagements among the three forces, and this includes a possible military exercise.

Japan regularly joins the annual Balikatan military exercise between the Philippines and the US, and has been active in supporting the Philippine military in the areas of maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster response, but this will be the first time that it engages Filipino soldiers in military exercise.

Still, the missile systems

WHILE Brawner has his attention fixed on firepower for the Army in its modernization project, the acquisition of potent and enemy-fending missile systems remains his top priority.

“We should have good missile defense systems,” he said. “The ideal is, it should be enough to cover and defend the entire country.”

While the primary constraint is budget or budgetary allocations, the Army chief asserts that the country should increase its defense spending.

Image credits: Philippine Army