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Analysis: Growing The Philippines South China Sea Outpost

An undated photo of BRP Sierra Madre, grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratley Islands

An undated photo of BRP Sierra Madre, grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratley Islands

The Philippines government has begun efforts to reinforce the tiny outpost of BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated World War II-era landing ship deliberately beached on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. Due in no small part to extensive media coverage, the vessel is a well-known symbol of the ongoing territorial dispute over the mineral- and resource-rich Spratleys Island group.

Since the grounding, the Philippines has rotated a small group of marines to occupy and report on the shoal; seen as vital to the Philippines activity since China began ramping up their island expansion in the region.

In a bit of political subterfuge, BRP Sierra Madre remains a commissioned vessel in the navy, making it an official extension of Philippine sovereign territory, despite the fact the hull is no longer seaworthy. The conditions aboard are harsh—the corrosive effects of the saltwater environment have eaten away at the vessel; there are safety and habitability concerns everywhere. Planks cover enormous holes in the decks, and makeshift shelters are built into what’s left of the superstructure. The marines rely upon a limited supply of consumables; lightly armed, the outpost would not be able to resist a determined attack. At least two China coast guard cutters hover nearby, eager to interdict any resupply attempts to the beleaguered outpost.

For years, Manila maintained the official stance that it would not escalate the situation at Second Thomas Shoal, nor anywhere else in the contested area per the so-called Declaration of Conduct. While relying upon a long-awaited arbitration reading from a U.N. tribunal on China’s actions, the Philippine outposts within the Spratleys were kept in status quo; no expansions, or even maintenance to the infrastructure were made. The nation made it painfully clear that it was abiding by the rules, even as other regional players scrambled to consolidate their presence. While this deferral was quite public, it’s fair to say that much of it was related to budgetary and logistical constraints as much as political hand-wringing.

The acceleration of Chinese encroachment has changed the situation again. With Mischief Reef only 15 miles away from Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippine navy has quietly begun “maintenance” of the Sierra Madre. Reportedly, cement, welding tools and other reinforcing materials were brought in via several shipments that made it past the Chinese blockade. The effort, which the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs considers to be legal, has garnered China’s ire.

Improvements to shelter aside, the outpost still has to deal with habitability challenges, including a lack of organic ability to generate electricity and fresh water. In order to continue sustaining the outpost, some recent and forthcoming defense acquisitions could help. Former Australian landing craft and a brand new support vessel arriving in 2016 would bring much needed faster, far-ranging and heavier lift to sustain the blockade runs. Air drops, currently executed by aging Philippine air force Norman-Britten Islander transports, could be relieved by newer NC-212s under construction in Indonesia.

Overall, the drama of reinforcing BRP Sierra Madre is not the endgame, only a move in a larger match. A favorable outcome of the Philippines’ so-called lawfare approach, via the tribunal court, would finally put a legal stake in the ground that China’s actions are illegal. It would then fall heavily upon Beijing to either prove it’s a worthy international partner by abiding and agreeing to external arbitration, or continue on its path of the South China Sea claims, to the detriment of future relations within the region.

  • Curtis Conway

    When able the Philippines should upgrade to a drilling platform.

    • PolicyWonk

      Given the Philippines budgetary problems, perhaps something along the lines of the Mulberry platforms used at Normandy would be a decent alternative. They’re very cheap: you can just float them out, sink them to the bottom, link them together, and move in.

      The main problem is the Chinese Coast Guard – so resupply by air is the only option – unless the USA has an asset or two in the area that decide to make a friendly “port visit” and the locals offer “liberty” to the crew (or the PCG ups their game in a big way, which isn’t likely in the near future).

      • Curtis Conway

        It would have to be a coordinated effort. Perhaps a US drilling contractor can accidentally run aground.

      • Secundius

        @ PolicyWonk.

        The only problem I see, is. If we can DO IT, So can THEY…

    • Secundius

      @ Curtis Conway.

      Your Wish Sire, has cometh true. Otto Energy, Ltd. of West Perth, Western Australia and the Filipino Government. Have signed a contract to star immediate Drilling Operations in the South China Sea. The Australian’s will do the Drilling and the Philippine Military the Security. And any other Philippine Friendly Nations in the region as well. It only remain to be seen weather the US. Navy with participate as well. BOY IS THIS GOING TO PISS-OFF THE CHICOM’S…

      • fenrir

        lol, i don’t think China cares since “The SC 55 site, fortunately, is not situated in parts of the West Philippine Sea that are being claimed by China”

        stop day dreaming dude, Australia doesn’t dare to piss off China for such a tiny profit

        • Secundius

          @ fenrir.

          Well it looks like Australia is do that very thing, anyway…

          • fenrir

            “The SC 55 site, fortunately, is not situated in parts of the West Philippine Sea that are being claimed by China”

            learn to read dude, China doesn’t care

          • Secundius

            @ fenrir.

            Guess What, neither do the Other Countries In the Region, Including Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America…

      • Curtis Conway

        AMEN . . . musical notes . . . AMEN . . . more musical notes . . . AMEN AMEN AMEN Hallelujah!

        • Secundius

          @ Curtis Conway.

          Further update, Sire. Otto Energy has already Set Up Shop in the Palawan Basin of Palawan Island, Philippines. First Drilling is also to take place in July of 2015, but no specific date is set.

          Palawan Island, itself consists of the 4th Philippine Infantry Division ~6,000 strong and a Small Philippine Naval Base.

          United States, has been given Green Light on FIVE Military Bases in the Philippines. At the following:
          1. Subic Bay, Western Luzon, 2012
          2. Clark, Central Luzon
          3. Oyster Bay, Palawan
          4. Brooke’s Point, Palawan
          5. Batanas, Northern Philippine Archipelago, Middle of the Luzon Strait’s…

          • Curtis Conway

            Hey, non of this Sire stuff. I’m a Mustang!

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Comway.

            Ok Mustang. I suspect one of those MPL’s are going to be stationed on the Batanas Archipelago with six Mk. VI Patrol Boat’s…

          • Curtis Conway

            Now THAT sounds like an idea! The Mk VIs are perfect for that environment until the seas get rough. They can have patrol routes and RON at various locations gaining intel and facetime with the locals.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Mustang, Not exactly sure about Billeting of Mk. VI’s some say 6 while other’s say 10. Fairly curtain that “Little Boys” will be using MPL, as Support Ship’s. I wish they would introduce some Ambassador III’s or VI’s into the Mix as well…

          • Curtis Conway

            IF the PC-1s ever come home and have anything left in them, they would be a great candidate too.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Update Report: 27 July 2015.

            Mustang, South Korea is GIVING one of their Pohang class Corvettes to the Philippine Navy and 12 Landing Crafts (Undetermined classes) with additional Pohang’s coming as well. Plus selling 12 KAI FA-50 (T-50) Bantamweight Fighters, with the option to purchase 24 more…

          • Curtis Conway

            The first FA-50s have already completed test flights and will be delivered by December. The balance of the full dozen should be there by 2017.

            The Pohang Class Corvette is perfect for West Philippine Sea patrols.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Hey Mustang, it appears that after the Drilling. Instead of a Oil Platform, which is Static and Can’t be moved easily, there going to use the “Super Lubber” route. Preposition a Pumping Ship w/Anchor Stay’s on All four corners and Suck the Oil Up through Flexible Hoses. That way she’s not an easy target…

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Mustang, should already be home by know. British didn’t buy it, because of Price/Aircraft. Eight Poseidon’s to one PC-1…

          • Curtis Conway

            Patrol Craft 1 (Cyclone Class). I think the Philippines is looking for some of our second hand P-3Cs. The Japanese have discussed operating their P-3Cs out of the Philippines (probably Clark) to patrol the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Further Update Mustang.
            Australia is sending two Balikpapan class Heavy Landing Crafts to the Philippine for the Filipino’s to use to transport their troops. Each is capable of transporting: (3) Main Battle Tanks, (13) APC’s, (23) 3/4-ton Trucks and (400) Troops…

          • Curtis Conway

            Making progress. The South Koreans and Japanese have helped as well.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            Mustang, I already know about Japan. But when did South Korea Join the Game. Sec…

  • Earl Tower

    If the Philippines wants to truly double down, they’ll eventually have to take the route China is doing with the sea dredging and building up artificial islands. It will be interesting to see just what China will do when the Philippines take such steps.

  • The Hard Man

    Good for the Philippines! They should buy one of the mothballed US aircraft carriers in Bremerton and park that at the Second Thomas Shoal….as an ‘international rescue station’ naturally!

    • John King

      That won’t have cost very much since the Navy actually PAID a scrapper to take over one of the carriers for a penny!

    • Just me, Banlas

      Good target for cruise missile practice.

      • The Hard Man

        LOL! And artificial islands move even more slowly!

    • Secundius

      @ The Hard Man.

      Not going to happen! ALL have already be Sold as Scrap Metal…

  • PolicyWonk

    Perhaps the Philippines could “invite” the US to park one of our new MLP’s near one of their reefs to conduct “maritime safety patrols” with several of our Mark VI patrol boats (alongside a few similar Philippine boats), and maybe a few V-22s and a couple of choppers.

    It would provide us with a chance to jointly “train” our sailors and marines, while providing a valuable community service.

    • Secundius

      @ PolicyWonk.

      The MPL’s, can support up to four Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion’s. Though the normal complement is only two. Putting a few Longbow Apache’s or Romeo’s aboard wouldn’t be a bad idea either…

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    LMAO! As usual, the Philippines brings nothing to the fight except empty rhetoric & spit. If this article was not so entertaining in yet, another Filipino half arsed attempt at playing with the Big Boys on the block, it should not have even been published. The Philippines has made their bed (refusal to extend U.S. Base agreements) & now they will have to lay in it with whatever the results may be…the world does not care anymore, as the B/S of the Filipino has been fully exposed…

    • Secundius

      @ FedUpWithWelfareStates.

      What are you talking about, Sir. Subic Bay was reopened to the US. Navy’s 7th Fleet in July/August 2012. And extended those rights to the Japanese Self Defense Force – Navy, too…

  • Secundius

    Go Ahead REDACT ME, Your going to do it Anyway. So much for the 1st Amendment, RIGHT…

  • Rob C.

    Gutsy, but only gains they’ll get is political. If China got serious, it would turn ugly fast. Politics only option for the Philippines at this point. BRP Sierra Madre is desperate act, but don’t see how it can be useful in the long run unless it’s replaced. Were talking about World War II Landing ship, it doesn’t have much life left to it’s hull

  • SailorRet

    I was in the Philippines when the spoiled, immature, brats of wealthy Philippine oligarchs voted in the Philippine Senate to reject the highly advantageous treaty for the American bases in the Philippines. The only other example of such a destructive group against their own nation is Dubya and his gang. It just shows when oligarchs get power, the people and the nation suffer.

    • Secundius

      @ SailorRet.

      Was that Before or After, Ferdinand Marcos raped the Philippine Treasury in 1986…

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  • Secundius

    ATTN: USNI News.

    I didn’t have my Secret Decoder Ring On! So, just what exactly did I say, that required a Redactment on your part???

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