[ANALYSIS] Goodbye to arms control regime

Last year, the Philippines officially joined missile-capable countries in the Indo-Pacific region after successfully testing its Israeli-made Spike-ER (extra range) surface-to-surface missile (SSM) installed on 3 of its Multi-Purpose Attack Craft (MPAC) in Manila Bay.

The anti-ship missile fired from an MLS Typhoon Weapon Station, also acquired from Israel, hit its floating target 6 kilometers away as the Philippine Navy demonstrated its latest capability and fired its remote-controlled guns – with a helicopter releasing rockets against a target.

Next year, the Philippine Navy will have better capability when South Korea delivers its first missile-capable frigate, the controversial warship which cost the early retirement of a former navy chief over allegations of corruption. 

In addition to its primary Oto Melara 76mm gun and a 30mm remote-controlled stabilized gun, the frigate will be armed with two anti-ship missiles and two anti-air missiles as well as torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare and advanced sensors and radars for better situational awareness.

Other Southeast Asian neighbors have acquired similar capabilities – long before the Philippines upgraded its World War II vintage vessels. The country's most advanced warship is a former Coast Guard weather high endurance craft, ex- USCG Hamilton, acquired in 2011 through a grant from its oldest security ally and former colonial master, United States, and renamed BRP Gregorio del Pilar.

The Philippines has a lot a catching up to do to match its neighbors, including tiny Brunei which has an Exocet missile-armed fast attack craft. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have conventional submarines, which Manila is planning to acquire under the second horizon of its 15-year modernization program.

Abandoned obligations

While the Philippines is still busy building its limited missile capability, the United States and rival Russia are preparing to resume a deadly race to develop, test, stockpile, and deploy intermediate range conventional and nuclear missiles, with range from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers.

This after both powers decided to abandon their obligations to the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The decision to walk away from the landmark disarmament pact will take effect in August 2019.

But long before US and Russia scrapped the INF treaty, Washington already turned its back on the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002, arguing that it had to defend itself from “rogue states” with nuclear weapons, such as Iran, and forcing Russia to develop its own missile defense program. 

The ABM treaty was signed by former U.S. president Richard Nixon and then-USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev during a Moscow summit in May 1972, limiting the number of strategic missile defense sites to counter inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Without the ABM treaty and with the recent decision of Washington to withdraw from the INF treaty, the world appears headed for a throwback – in particular the post-World War II period when the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics raced to develop and deploy strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. This culminated in the 1962 Cuban crisis, when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict.

The world gets more dangerous as many countries continue to acquire nuclear weapons, like India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea apart from the original 5 powers – US, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France.

India heightens arms race

Just this week, India joined the U.S, Russia and China as the 4th country to have shot down a low-orbiting satellite in space, demonstrating its advanced missile defense capability. And what would stop its rival Pakistan from attempting to acquire similar capability, with possible help from China?

India has good relations with the U.S. but also buys missile from Russia. Thus, this development will further heighten the arms race among nuclear weapons-capable states.

In January this year, the Trump administration released its 2019 Missile Defense Review, which aimed to provide more resources to develop new technologies to defeat any missile fired at the U.S., from any place, at any time. Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned rivals, "We see what you are doing and we are taking action."

Some analysts, particularly from the US-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, warned that Washington’s decision to develop a more robust strategic missile defense will not easy given the financial resources required and new technological challenges.

“The prospect of a more comprehensive U.S. ballistic missile defense network will only spur Russia and China to redouble their efforts,” Stratfor said in its assessment issued in February.

The U.S. has used Russia as an excuse to suspend its obligations to the INF treaty in February and to further develop advanced strategic missile defense capabilities, including space-based sensors. But  the January Missile Defense Review betrayed its America's nervousness about China’s growing missile capabilities. China is not a party to both the 1972 ABM treaty and 1987 INF treaty.

Based on the 2019 MDR, the U.S. planned to complete two Pacific radars for homeland defense as well as assess the required number of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistic missile defense deployed in South Korea and Guam. THAAD are also deployed in Israel and United Arab Emirates, which could protect US forces and its allies in the Middle East against possible missile threats from Iran.

What about us?

Washington also plans to convert all its Aegis destroyers to be “fully missile defense capable” within 10 years, providing protection for its carriers steaming in the Indo-Pacific region and integrate the F-35 sensor suite into the ballistic Missile defense System (BMDS). The Aegis system is a sea-based short-to intermediate-ranger ballistic conventional or nuclear missiles.

The U.S. plans to accelerate efforts to enhance missile defense tracking and discrimination sensors, develop an emergency activation plan to potentially operationalize the Aegis Ashore test site in Hawaii and study development and fielding of a space-missile intercept layer and testing requirements for defense against hypersonic threats.

The U.S. has been giving top priority to South Korea and Japan, providing missile defense not only to its allies but more importantly to its forces deployed there.

How about the Philippines? Manila is one of its closest and longest security allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

China could target Philippine bases where U.S. forces are deployed on rotating basis under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – should a shooting war between Beijing and Washington erupt. There are Chinese missiles on 7 manmade islands in the South China Sea.

What guarantee does Manila have that it will be covered by the missile defense? Can the Philippines invoke the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)? Can the MDT serve as a deterrent to potential missile attack?

That, I think, could be one reason behind Delfin Lorenzana’s call for a review of the treaty. Because the world has changed from 70 years ago – or even from 5 years ago. – Rappler.com


A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters' reporting on the Philippines' war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.