This week, the Philippines’ new naval chief grabbed headlines when he said that the country should pursue submarines as part of its military modernization not only to add to its limited capabilities, but also to gain the respect of other regional actors. Though the comments were the subject of much local media coverage, they in fact represent just the latest restatement of the Philippine pursuit of the capability in spite of the significant challenges it faces in doing so.
The idea of the Philippines developing a submarine capability is not a new one and dates back to at least the 1990s. Since then, the Philippine government has studied the issue and taken some initial steps towards that long-term goal, including setting up a submarine office in 2013. And over the past few years, as more regional states had moved to either acquire submarines or expand or upgrade existing capabilities – not just China but also neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand – the idea has gained even more steam (See: “A New Plan to Manage Asia’s Submarine Race”).
To be sure, in reality, with the Philippines still one of the region’s weakest militaries and significant investments required in more basic capabilities as well to counter a series of internal and external challenges, a submarine capability would be an expensive investment – in terms of not just the equipment itself, but also the supporting people, technology, and facilities (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”). But as part of a longer-term military modernization effort, a submarine capability would also admittedly be useful for helping address aspects of some of these challenges, including preserving the Philippine position in the South China Sea, or what is left of it (See: “Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter?”).
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