Tag Archive: defense

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Residents in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island have started promoting the island as a tourist destination amid tension among countries claiming the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, chief of the Armed Forces’ Western Command, confirmed that the tourism campaign has started albeit at a small scale, and said the military stands ready to help.

“We can help organize tour packages,” Lopez told reporters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

Lopez made the remark after visiting Pag-Asa Island with Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang, other military officials, and reporters last Monday.

During the visit, reporters saw some residents of Pag-Asa — where only fish was peddled before — selling souvenir shirts promoting the island as a tourist spot.

White shirts printed with beaches, starfishes, aerial pictures of Pag-Asa, and other Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratlys are being sold at the Kalayaan municipal hall for P280.

One resident also makes “tuba” (coconut wine) and offers this for P75 a liter to visitors.

Such merchandise were not seen on the island before, until China boosted its presence in the West Philippine Sea.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. Photo by author.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. 2015 photo by author.

Chinese warships and Coast Guard vessels are frequently seen in the disputed waters while construction and reclamation works are ongoing in China-held features including Subi (Zamora) Reef, which is only about 25 kilometers from Pag-Asa.

Residents said they have also been seeing Vietnamese fishing vessels straying near Pag-Asa — particularly at a reef to the island’s east and a sandbar to the north — and carry out dynamite fishing.

Lopez said the military cannot “actually escort” tourists to Pag-Asa because that’s not in its mandate, though helping arrange tours is allowable.

In his visit, Catapang said the military will “reinforce” tourism efforts, though securing visitors would be a joint effort with Coast Guard and local government agencies because Pag-Asa is in “internal waters.”

Tours could be extended to the other Philippine-occupied islands Patag (Flat), Kota (Loaita), Panata (Lankiam), Lawak (Nanshan), Likas (West York), and even Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, he added.

Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said the tourism campaign will go full scale “next year” after the town buys a 25-meter steel-hulled boat for P10 million.

The Pag-Asa airstrip's western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The Pag-Asa airstrip’s western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The boat project, which is aimed at ferrying visitors from a jump-off station from mainland Palawan, comes while the government has yet to repair the airstrip on Pag-Asa.

A chunk of the 1.3-kilometer airstrip’s western edge has eroded into the sea, though small aircraft and military planes can still land.

A “pasalubong” (souvenir) shop and lodge will also be opened on Pag-Asa to cater to tourists, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Friday directed military pilots to continue patrols over the West Philippine Sea despite China’s challenging of Philippine planes.

Gazmin gave the order after expressing concern that China appears to be already practicing an “air defense identification zone,” or ADIZ, over the disputed waters.

“Ito ay cause for concern sapagkat parang pina-practice ng China na mayroon nang ADIZ although wala pang formal declaration,” Gazmin said during a briefing of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

“Ang directive natin ay continue ‘yung kanilang (pilots) normal na trabaho, hindi dapat natatakot sa mga babalang ganito,” he added.

The defense chief’s remarks came after Armed Forces Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez told a Senate hearing Thursday that China warned Air Force and Navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the West Philippine Sea.

“They are acting as if they already have an ADIZ in the area,” defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said Thursday night.

China first declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea in November 2013, covering a group of islets occupied by Japan.

It demanded that all countries with aircraft passing through the zone submit flight plans, or otherwise face “defensive measures.”

The move caused a stir not only in Japan but also in the Philippines, whose exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the west covers some islands and reefs being claimed by China.

Officials expressed concern that China might next declare an ADIZ over the West Philippine Sea, including territories which the Philippines has been occupying for decades.

China’s challenging of Philippine military planes, done via radio, were reported after Manila released aerial photos showing Beijing’s reclamation and construction works on some reefs in the disputed waters.

Last March 30, Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said China has stepped up construction and reclamation on at least seven reefs, including three that are inside the Philippines’ EEZ.

Gazmin said the DND has already reported its observations to the proper agency and will continue to monitor China’s activities. (John Roson)

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More troops sent to Maguindanao

The military has deployed additional troops to Maguindanao amid continuing operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Members of the Samar-based 34th Infantry Battalion arrived in Camp Siongco, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Saturday, said Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs officer of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.

“The deployment marks the start of the ‘holding phase,’ where government forces will establish encampments in former lairs of the BIFF to prevent the armed lawless group from going back,” Petinglay said.

The battalion will also augment the 6th ID’s efforts in maintaining peace and security in Maguindanao, as well as parts of North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Lanao del Sur, she said.

Rebel casualties rise

Meanwhile, Armed Forces public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said the number of BIFF members killed in military operations since February has reached 139.

Fifty-three members of the rebel group have been wounded and 12 more were apprehended, he said.

Cabunoc said the number of slain rebels rose from the last week’s count of 117, not because there were new clashes, but because of the military’s validation of intelligence reports.

“‘Yung ibang wounded namatay na, at saka mayroong iba na hindi listed as patay or wounded, pero patay pala. ‘Yung iba naman body parts lang, na-artillery, di agad nakilala,” he said.

Operation: Graduation

Cabunoc said operations against the BIFF members will continue even as soldiers are set to conduct peace and development activities in areas where clashes had occurred.

“Security forces will continue to conduct focused military operations against the armed threats like the BIFF and the terrorists that they have coddled,” he said.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said the hunt for the remaining BIFF members and bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman will be continued until June.

Local authorities in Maguindanao, however, expressed concern over the operations’ effects, especially on students, and even called for a halt to allow graduation exercises this month.

Cabunoc said Catapang ordered the 6th ID to “facilitate” graduation exercises, by helping government and school authorities identify areas where such events can be held.

“They will jointly identify specific places, ‘yung clear na of the armed group,” he said.

Cabunoc said ongoing operations will not affect graduation ceremonies, as BIFF members have already splintered into small groups that roam in the marshlands of Maguindanao.

“Itong BIFF nag-splinter na into small groups, nasa marshlands na ang mga ito, wala nang schools doon,” he said. (John Roson)

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Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japan Defense Minister Gen Nakatani signing a memorandum on defense cooperation. (Japan MoD photo)

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japan Defense Minister Gen Nakatani signing a memorandum on defense cooperation. (Japan MoD photo)

The Philippines submitted to Japan a list of defense equipment that it plans to acquire from the latter, amid the two countries’ common maritime dispute with China.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed the list’s submission Monday, after returning from Japan where he met with his counterpart Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.

“Lahat ng magagamit to address our maritime security (Everything we can use to address our maritime security),” Gazmin said in a text message, when asked what items were on the list.

The list covers equipment for capabilities in ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), HADR (humanitarian and disaster response), and lift, defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said for his part.

Last January 31, the Department of National Defense and Japan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement, saying Gazmin and Nakatani signed a “Memorandum on Defense Cooperation and Exchanges.”

In the memorandum, the defense chiefs “concurred” on, among others, “to explore a possibility of cooperation in the area of defense equipment and technology.”

The two countries “will start working-level discussions” on the matter, according to the statement.

‘Rare agreement’

“This is a very rare occassion, if not the first, [for] the Japanese to sign such a memorandum,” Galvez said.

The memorandum came months after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration re-interpreted Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution in July 2014.

The Constitution, enacted in 1947 after Japan’s involvement in World War II, was re-interpreted to allow the country to protect itself thru a “collective” defense with allies.

Japan also adopted what it calls the “Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology” in April 2014.

Navy list

The Philippine Navy submitted to the DND a list of assets that it plans to acquire from Japan on December 26, spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo said Monday.

The force is looking at a possible acquisition of patrol vessels from Japan, Navy vice commander Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad said on December 17.

Humanitarian and disaster response equipment like transport ships and sea planes are also in the list, Arevalo said on December 22.

Common sea problems

Japan’s re-interpretation of its Constitution followed China’s deployment of Coast Guard ships and establishment of an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) in an area encompassing the Japan-occupied Senkaku Islands.

China lays claim to those islands and calls them “Diaoyu Islands.”

China has also been deploying Coast Guard ships around Philippine-occupied parts of the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands Group off Palawan and the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales, areas which they are now preventing Filipino fishermen from entering.

China claims all of the Spratly Islands, which it calls “Nansha Islands,” and Scarborough Shoal, which it calls “Huangyan Island.”

Capability building

During their meeting, Gazmin and Nakatani also agreed on having the Japan Self -Defense Forces (JSDF) help the Armed Forces of the Philippines build capabilities in humanitarian and disaster response (HADR).

“As a part of this project, they (JSDF) will conduct capacity building assistance in the area of air transportation to the members of PAF (Philippine Air Force) in 2015,” according to the defense chiefs’ statement.

The PAF, on the other hand, will try to participate in future versions of “Cope North,” the multilateral combat-readiness and HADR exercise annually conducted by Japan, the U.S., Australia, and other allies off Guam.

The Philippine Navy, meanwhile, will conduct bilateral naval training with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force this year “to promote cooperation in maritime security,” according to the statement. (John Roson)

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The Philippine Air Force on Wednesday warned adventure-seekers not to push with plans of flying over areas where Pope Francis will be holding activities, saying various aircraft and guns are in place to stop them.

“We are employing different types of aircraft, from S-211 jets, helicopter gunships, regular helicopters, and even ground-based anti-aircraft guns for air cover,” Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Enrico Canaya said.

“Ang message namin, there maybe those who plan to overfly the areas. They should be informed that an air defense system will be in place, baka kasi mayroong mag-adventure diyan, mag-overfly,” he stressed.

The S-211 jets, currently the fastest in the PAF fleet with a maximum speed of 667 kilometers per hour, will be used to “intercept” aircraft that are monitored to be heading towards areas where Pope Francis will be holding activities, Canaya said.

They will be used in areas at least 10 nautical miles away from where the Pope is to prevent aircraft from approaching the 3-nautical mile “no-fly zone” designated by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, he said.

Helicopters will be used within the “inner layer.”

Canaya said the PAF and Navy will use a total of 26 air assets for different operations, including air cover.

“As much as possible, we don’t want to use force,” he said, adding that even drones are not allowed no-fly zones.

Amid the massive and seemingly threatening deployment, Canaya assured that Air Force pilots and gunners will “exercise prudence” in dealing with those who enter no-fly zones.

“We are exercising prudence in our judgment… We will see to it that there is no collateral damage,” he said. (John Roson)

– end –

The Philippines has observed an advancement in China’s reclamation at a territory in the disputed West Philippine (South China) Sea and is alarmed over the development, Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said Wednesday.

“About 50 percent na tapos na sila, it’s alarming in the sense that it could be used for purposes other than peaceful use,” Catapang told reporters.

“Mayroong isang nire-reclaim na mahaba-haba, about 1 point something or 2 kilometers. Di pa siya developed as an airfield, pero at that span it could be,” the military chief said.

Catapang made the remarks after coming from a command conference with other ranking officers of the Armed Forces in Camp Aguinaldo.

“We continue to monitor what’s happening in the West Philippine Sea, we are appraised on the situation. We know there is still ongoing reclamation,” he said.

The military chief did not specify which territories in the disputed waters are being reclaimed.

Last September, Catapang said in a media forum that reclamations were observed in two reefs in the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group.

One of these was on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, he said.

Last May, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said reclamation was also observed on Mabini (Johnson South) Reef, where Philippine authorities believe China could be building a “base.”

Meanwhile, Catapang also revealed on Wednesday that the military continues to spot Chinese ships in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, another feature in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines is still waiting for the decision of the United Nations’ International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea on the case it filed against China’s claims in the disputed waters, he said. (John Roson)

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The Philippines may spend more than P90 billion (US$1.995 billion) for the second phase of modernizing its military in the six years after 2017, defense officials said Wednesday.

“Mayroon nang estimate… It’s much higher than P90 billion,” defense undersecretary for finance, munitions, and materiel Fernando Manalo said.

Manalo made the remark in a press briefing to present the status of modernization projects under what the defense department calls the “first horizon.”

The first horizon effectively started 2014 and will end on 2017.

Under this phase, the government is spending P90.858 billion to buy warships, fighter jets, helicopters, an air defense radar system, other various equipment, and will upgrade existing bases.

Many of these projects are already being implemented and the government shows capacity to pay, so the “second horizon” can already be implemented by 2017, Manalo said.

The second horizon is slated to be implemented until 2023 while the third horizon will run from 2024 to 2028.

Manalo declined to specify what types of equipment will be acquired under the second horizon, but said these will mostly be for disaster response and protecting territories in the disputed West Philippine (South China) Sea.

“It is sufficient [to say] we are heavy on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and protecting our interest in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said incidents in the West Philippine Sea were “much considered” for the Armed Forces’ modernization.

Manalo hinted that more fighter jets may be bought under the second horizon, saying that the current 12 being bought from South Korea is “way way below than what is needed by the Air Force.”

Defense assistant secretary for acquisitions, installations, and logistics Patrick Velez, for his part, said the Navy may already have five to six frigates at end of the third horizon.

“Where we are right now, we are in the first stages but enough to address some concerns of the Armed Forces… We are moving on from this capability towards the full capability of the AFP to provide for credible deterrence,” Velez said. (John Roson)

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Police scour the RTMI bus that was bombed in Maramag, Bukidnon, on Tuesday. (police photo)

Police scour the RTMI bus that was bombed in Maramag, Bukidnon, on Tuesday. (police photo)

Authorities are looking at terrorism and extortion as possible motives in the bus bombing that left 10 people dead and 42 others injured in Maramag, Bukidnon, on Tuesday, security officials said Wednesday.

Lieutenant General Aurelio Baladad, chief of the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command, said investigation showed that the bomb had the “signature,” or make, similar to those assembled by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

“‘Yung lumitaw, ‘yun na nga, ang signature ng bomb is BIFF,” Baladad told reporters by phone.

Police mark the spot at the overhead baggage carrier where the bomb is believed to have been planted. (police photo)

Police mark the spot at the overhead baggage carrier where the bomb is believed to have been planted. (police photo)

Another military official, who requested anonymity, said the make of the bomb – an 81-millimeter mortar ammunition detonated with a cellphone – points to the group of one Dawtin Gendang of the BIFF.

Gendang and new “graduates” of the BIFF appeared to have carried out the attack on the Rural Transit Mindanao Inc. (RTMI) bus as “test mission,” the official told reporters.

Gendang was previously identified as a suspect in the bombing of another RTMI bus that injured four people last November 6, Inspector Jiselle Longakit, Bukidnon provincial police spokesperson, said.

The bus door after the blast. (Army photo)

The bus door after the blast. (Army photo)

The BIFF, according to the military, has links with bomb expert Abdul Basit Usman who is connected with the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and is wanted by both the Philippines and United States.

The group has also recently expressed support to the Middle East-based jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Tuesday’s explosion occurred inside an RTMI bus around 5:40 p.m. while it was passing through Maramag, on the way to Cagayan de Oro City.

Police said on Tuesday that the bus came from Wao, Lanao del Sur, but stated on Wednesday that it came from Banisilan, North Cotabato.

The blast happened in front of the main gate of the Central Mindanao University (CMU), shortly after the bus picked up passengers at a nearby bus stop.

The blast killed Kim Valiente, 17; Anita Santillan, 54; Marielle Achacoso, 17; Niezel Dee Gonzaga, 22; Catherine Villahermosa, Johnrey Valdesco, John Bernard Cuhanap, Jonathan Balida, Michael Buctos, and a still unidentified person. Some of them are students of CMU.

Forty-two other persons, some of whom are also CMU students, were hurt and taken to different hospitals.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, in a statement, called the bombing a “barbaric” act and called on people to help authorities identify the attackers.

“We condole with the families of the victims of this tragic incident. The DND thru the AFP is in full support and cooperation with the PNP to get to the bottom of this barbaric act,” Gazmin said.

The defense chief declined to say what angles are being looked into, stating that the DND was still waiting for results of the investigation.

Longakit said investigators are initially looking at extortion as a possible motive but have not set aside terrorism.

“We are still coordinating with the bus company on that (extortion angle),” she said, adding that terrorism has “not yet” been ruled out.

A statement released later by the provincial police said the management of RTMI “refused to give extortion fee,” but did not point to any group. (John Roson)

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Down. The Sokol military helicopter that crashed in Marawi City (photo from the Army 1st ID)

Down. The Sokol military helicopter that crashed in Marawi City (photo from the Army 1st ID)

Two people were injured when one of the military’s recently-acquired helicopters crashed in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, Thursday afternoon, authorities said.

The Air Force helicopter crashed around 2:30 p.m. shortly after taking off from the Army’s 103rd Brigade headquarters, Chief Superintendent Noel delos Reyes, director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao police, said by phone.

It was carrying Army 4th Infantry Division chief Maj. Gen. Ricardo Visaya, Col. Alexander Macario, some staff members, and crew members, Delos Reyes said.

“Okay naman si general Visaya, he survived the crash, saka si Col. Macario. Mukhang ‘yung gunner lang ang injured, napilayan, but everybody is safe,” he said.

(photo from DILG)

(photo from DILG)

Chief Superintendent Robert Kuinisala, deputy director of the ARMM police, said he was informed that a civilian child playing near the crash site in Kampo Ranao, Brgy. Saber, was also hurt.

“Isang crew ng helicopter ay namanhid ang paa at isang batang civilian ang may minor wound po. Naglalaro daw ‘yung bata sa baba,” Kuinisala said in a text message.

The ill-fated helicopter was escorting another military chopper carrying Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Sec. Mar Roxas, and a civilian chopper carrying Energy Sec. Jericho Petilla.

“Nagpunta sila (secretaries) to look into the power situation in Lanao del Sur, they met with local government officials. Paalis na sila, papunta na sa Cagayan de Oro,” Delos Reyes said.

(photo from Army 1st ID)

(photo from Army 1st ID)

The secretaries’ helicopters, which took off earlier, went back to check on the crashed chopper, he said.

The aircraft that crashed bears the body number 921 and is a Sokol helicopter, Kuinisala said, adding that the chopper’s propeller was damaged.

Gazmin’s office confirmed in a statement that the ill-fated helicopter was one of the recently-acquired W3A Sokol choppers.

“An investigation will be conducted to determine the cause of this incident,” according to the statement.

One of the Sokol helicopters being delivered in November 2012 (Air Force photo)

One of the Sokol helicopters being delivered in November 2012 (Air Force photo)

The government bought eight brand new Sokol helicopters from the joint venture of Polish manufacturer PZL-Swidnik and British-Italian firm AugustaWestland for P2.8 billion.

The units arrived in batches in February 2012, November 2012, and February 2013.

The helicopters were supposed be used for combat support operations but were eventually assigned to the Air Force’s 505th Search and Rescue Group, after its side door and gun mount were found “unfit” for the military’s tactics.

They are now being used to conduct rescue operations in times of calamities and transporting VIPs.

The incident in Marawi was not the first time for the Sokol units to encounter problems.

In July 2013, another Sokol helicopter (tail no. 310925) was stuck for five days in Camp Aguinaldo after failing to take off due to an undisclosed mechanical problem.

That helicopter was supposed to escort the group of Gazmin to an Air Force event in Pampanga. (John Roson)

– end –

Newly-installed Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Gregorio Catapang said the military will find ways to continue resupply missions to Philippine-held territories amid China’s tightening of security in the West Philippine (South China) Sea, but will not be “provocative.”

“Our last resupply was very smooth, we hope that the next will be the same. We are continuously monitoring the situation. We will maintain our presence there, we will find ways and means to continue resupply missions,” Catapang said in a briefing Friday.

Catapang made the remark when asked on what the military will do to ensure that other Philippine-held territories will not be sealed off like Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and heavily-guarded like Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

Catapang was also asked if the military has monitored Chinese plans to bring an oil rig to Recto (Reed) Bank off Palawan, like what happened in waters off Vietnam.

“As of now we have not monitored any movement of an oil rig,” he said.

Catapang assured that the Philippines will not lose Reed Bank and other Philippine-held territories, but vowed not to be “provocative.”

“We will maintain our diplomacy. We will not be provocative so that there will be no unintentional shooting in the area,” he said.

Catapang held the briefing shortly after being installed by President Benigno Aquino as new Armed Forces chief, in place of retired Gen. Emmanuel Bautista. (John Roson)

– end –