Editor’s Note: BRP: “Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas” (Ship of the Republic of the Philippines).
800 nautical miles to the southwest of Taiwan lies the Spratly Island archipelago. The long-contested region has been gaining visibility recently as a second flash point in the pushback against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) farcical claims on the South China Sea and its abundant resources.
Since the mid-1990s the Chinese government has been slowly reclaiming land in the islands by building up reefs with sand then constructing major military installations on top of them. Suffice it to say this has also fully militarized the region.
In a Hollywood worthy act of defiance, the Philippine government ran a World War II tank landing ship aground on a reef just 18 nautical miles east of the largest of these Chinese installations and has kept it manned as a territorial claim ever since. However, over the last 24 years the landing ship has been deteriorating, literally rusting out from underneath its crew. It is past time for a more permanent solution be deployed.
Instead of following a resource intensive earth, and sea, moving project, the Philippine government could take a leaner approach. Utilizing commercial off-the-shelf industrial platforms a Forward Operating Base could be constructed on shore and moved in pieces to be installed on site.
Replacing the BRP Sierra Madre
Taking a stand against an unjust aggressor, whether in a school hallway or in your nation’s EEZ, is almost always painful and involves some risk. However, letting them rule you through bullying is equally so.
A recent article posted to War On The Rocks, titled, “It’s Time to Build Combined Forward Operating Base Sierra Madre,” by Blake Herzinger, outlines the continuing struggle of the Philippine Government operating in the shadow of an aggressive and continually belligerent CCP. Mr. Herzinger makes a compelling argument for establishing a permanent base of operations in the area.
For context, in 1999, the Philippine Navy (PN) ran the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) aground on the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef inside the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippine Islands. Since then, they have kept it manned to maintain their territorial claims. The BRP Sierra Madre started life in 1944 as a tank landing ship used by the U.S. Navy during WWII and the Vietnam War. For those keeping track, this ship was continuously used in salt water for 56 years with little professional upkeep. Since its grounding, it has been left to rot.
A dozen or less Filipino Marines are stationed aboard it year-round to maintain the government’s claim to the area and prevent the CCP from encroaching further into the contested waters. The remains of the BRP Sierra Madre Look like something out of the 1995 post-apocalyptic film “Waterworld,” and the Marines aboard her often must live off fish they catch in the local reef due to the CCP People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Coast Guard harassing the PN resupply ships. More recently, the PN has resorted to airdrops to keep the crew supplied.
A combined forward operating base Sierra Madre (CFOB SM) would provide political and military advantages to the Philippine government and its global partners by blunting CCP claims to the region. While tensions may temporarily increase, it is politically more difficult to harass an established military strong point with peer adversary capabilities.
What would CFOB SM look like? That depends upon several factors that must be analyzed well before deployment.
Area of Responsibility (AOR): Not in my backyard…
A FOB is a secured position to facilitate military operations in a region. They’re typically supported by one or more main bases and serve as a waypoint for units operating in or transiting the FOB’s AOR. Depending upon available resources and mission goals, an AOR can span a significant distance. That distance is defined by response time and the operational range of assets launching from the FOB. Response assets are mainly limited by their fuel capacity; no matter how far they can travel in a straight line, they must turn around when they’ve burned about 40% of their fuel. That leaves them another 40% to return to base with 10% in reserve. Otherwise, the asset must somehow refuel on its return leg or run out and face the consequences.
Second Thomas Shoal is located on the eastern edge of the Spratly Islands archipelago, which the Philippine government claims in their entirety since it lies inside its EEZ. Despite this, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei claim portions of the islands. It should be noted that the region is also inside the fictional nine-dash-line drawn by the CCP. The Spratly Islands span 164,000 square miles (425,000 km2) of the South China Sea, with less than 500 acres (2 km2) of dry land at high tide. It is a source of fish, guano, and petroleum resources and has a growing tourism sector. Additionally, it’s located near multiple international shipping lanes. These factors make CFOB SM an ideal location for supporting PCG operations, with the PN acting as a backup force.
Ground Truths: the dragon in the room, and sheer distance…
In addition to the sheer size and contested claims on the Spratly Archipelago, the CCP has built up its military presence on the islands through land reclamation projects since the mid-1990s.
- 18 nautical miles to the west-northwest of the Second Thomas Shoal is Mischief Reef, where the PLA Navy has illegally constructed a massive military installation complete with point defense weapon emplacements and an 8900 ft (2700 m) runway.
- 90 nautical miles to the west are the Union Banks, where a pair of fortified maritime observation posts bracket the surrounding reefs.
- 125 nautical miles to the northwest is Subi reef and a 9800 ft (3000m) runway.
- 175 nautical miles to the west-southwest is Fiery Cross Reef with another PLA 9850 ft (3000 m) runway.
All four sites are within the 300 nautical mile range of the PLA Air Force Z-20 medium-lift helicopter, a knockoff of the American UH-60. All three runways can accommodate the H-6 tactical bomber currently used by the PLA Air Force. Given the CCP Coast Guard’s recent tactic of harassing PN ships with dazzling lasers, water cannons, and the occasional ramming, tactical bomber strikes and helicopter-deployed assault teams are unlikely, but not impossible, under the legend of a “mistake.” Additionally, the PLA Navy has extensive helicopter-capable resources that should not be ignored.
In terms of force projection, BRP Sierra Madre is at the far end of a long, narrow logistics chain. Zamboanga City, on the opposite side of the Sulu Sea, is a 470-nautical-mile journey to Second Thomas Shoal. Manila is only slightly closer at 415 nautical miles. Several villages are on the west side of Palawan Island, and a few PN stations are scattered along its length. Thitu is much closer at 120 nautical miles to the northwest, but its facilities are quite limited, with only a 3300 ft (1000 m) dirt runway and a small protected harbor. Assets responding from there would be forced to run a gauntlet of any deployed PLA Navy vessels or aircraft, and circle wide of Mischief Reef.
Mission Set: Maritime Law Enforcement, Military Deterrence, Death and Taxes…
With that in mind, the PN and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) will need to decide what the mission set is, the minimum assets needed to complete it, and what it will take to support said assets. Mission sets, typically derived from political goals, inform everything from logistics to force deployments to standing rules of engagement (SROE). Given the vast number of natural resources and various growing industries in the Spratly Islands, maritime law enforcement (MLE) is a more politically acceptable fit than outright national defense.
Tourists don’t just take pictures and then get drunk and sunburned on the beach. Ecotourism is an established industry, as are sport fishing and diving. Shipping lanes are rife with both contraband and human smuggling. Oil and natural gas mining and commercial fishing generate a lot of tax revenue. All of these industries, which are steadily growing in the area, inevitably lead to two things: regulation and search and rescue missions (SAR). Regulations and SAR are firmly under the purview of Coast Guards.
This isn’t to say that Coast Guard assets can’t be “up-gunned” to respond to military-level threats. U.S. Marines have successfully fired stinger anti-air and javelin missiles from open-topped, rigid-hull, inflatable boats. The Spike family of missile systems has been tested for coastal defense purposes. It is already in the Philippine military arsenal, with plans to deploy the system on their Acero-Class patrol gunboats. Suffice it to say that CFOB SM might be a Coast Guard station, but it could be one that adversaries best avoid. A weapon system doesn’t need to be mounted on a deck turret to poke holes in a destroyer-class vessel.
Infrastructure: bullets, beans, and beds…
FOBs, combined or otherwise, are not known for their creature comforts. However, simple things like ceiling fans and windows that can be closed against the weather would vastly improve the current conditions aboard the BRP Sierra Madre. A quick image search paints a grim picture of life on the rusting hulk.
Second Thomas Shoal is a natural strong point from a maritime perspective. It’s a long, teardrop-shaped lagoon surrounded by a coral rim with an 89 ft (27 m) charted depth. There is a single “deep water” entrance on the east side where ships can enter at low tide. With recent developments in deep sea drilling and wind turbine installation, 100 ft (30 m) is within the range of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions. A wide variety of work platforms, towers, and other prefabricated components can be built ashore and lowered into place in one or two pieces in a few weeks, if not less.
It would take the help of a dedicated offshore construction company to find the right fit among the myriad of products currently on the market. Budget constraints will inform choices on whether to repurpose industrial surplus like outdated oil derricks or adapt an existing product fresh out of the construction yards, like the base tower for a wind turbine. Weather conditions are also a significant factor in structural design.
CFOB SM will be supporting its AOR and the units operating within it. Support means having consumable resources on hand and providing shelter from bad weather and a bed to rest in. All these solutions have been pioneered and refined by the commercial sector; the PN and PCG need only decide on the price point and color of the paint.
Construction: lessons learned in the trailer park: show up in the dark and bring a bigger bully…
In rural sectors and industrial outskirts of the United States, trailer parks spring up like mushrooms after rain. Whether geared toward retirees or affordable housing for the nearest building project, they have one thing in common. A housing unit can be towed onto a site, hooked into utilities, and operational in under six hours. Trailer parks have developed a bad reputation for being installed and cratering property values (and tax bases) before zoning commissions can react. The maritime construction industry isn’t much different. It has streamlined the process for installing facilities on a site with little warning to the locals.
For example, a jack-up barge is a floating platform with a unique and useful party trick; once on site, massive steel posts are driven into the sea bottom. The barge can then raise itself clear of the water on those posts to provide a stable platform for construction work. Jack-up barges often come with a crane, fuel storage, and installed generators. Used in major offshore construction projects, they can lift and place entire structures, such as wind turbine tower bases, in a single operation. Some larger platform supply vessels can carry an entire prefab structure and its base as separate modules on deck, then assemble them on site like a complex toy on Christmas morning.
The raw and prefab materials needed to construct a permanent base could be brought in with the jack-up barge as a single logistics convoy. The PLA Coast Guard would be hard-pressed to harass, much less interdict, an industrial-scale operation, especially if escorted by larger PN and PCG assets. Also, attempting to ram a construction ship with a crane rated at 500 tons is a good way to have your deck gun ripped off and used to cave in your wheelhouse.
The U.S. could demonstrate its support for the Philippine government’s claims through a joint training exercise with the PN and PCG. U.S. Naval assets, like the USS Lewis B. Puller ESB-3, a 785 ft (240 m) Expeditionary Sea Base, will not be shouldered aside by anything short of an aircraft carrier. It could transport the prefabricated CFOB SM modules, the construction barges, and a few years’ worth of supplies in a single trip. While construction is underway, the U.S. Marines could take a page from the CCP’s playbook and use the opportunity to practice beach landings and air insertions onto Philippine-controlled islands in the region. It would also be an excellent opportunity for them to cross-train with their Filipino Marine counterparts, an echo of the partnership inaugurated in 1950. The Filipino Marines’ intimate knowledge of the area and best practices would be invaluable in future conflicts with PLA forces in the South China Sea.
In summary, this is more than doable; it simply takes will and commitment.
The CCP’s absurd claims to the South China Sea are comical at best. Provocations via their white-hull navy pretending to be a Coast Guard are analogous to the middle school bully who only pokes victims and bumps into them in the hallway because an outright punch would land them in the principal’s office.
Building CFOB SM would mean leaning into that bump in the hall. Arming it with peer adversary weapons systems means bending the bully’s finger back until it touches their wrist without actually breaking a bone. They’ll scream, stamp their feet, and even throw a punch, but assuming that punch lands, they will be committed to a fight they cannot politically afford.
Council on Foreign Relations. “Timeline: China’s Maritime Disputes.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 2020, www.cfr.org/timeline/chinas-maritime-disputes.
Fredly, Aldgra. “Philippines Mulls Taking Legal Action against China over Coral Reef Destruction.” The Epoch Times, The Epoch Times, 24 Sept. 2023, www.theepochtimes.com/world/philippines-mulls-taking-legal-action-against-china-over-coral-reef-destruction-5497164?ea_src=frontpage&ea_med=top-news-world-1. Accessed 24 Sept. 2023.
Graham, Euan. “The Philippine Base at Second Thomas Shoal Will Have to Be Replaced.” The Maritime Executive, The Maritime Executive, 14 Aug. 2023, https://maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-philippine-base-at-second-thomas-shoal-will-have-to-be-replaced. Accessed 26 Sept. 2023.
Herzinger, Blake. “It’s Time to Build Combined Forward Operating Base Sierra Madre.” War on the Rocks, War on the Rocks, 11 Sept. 2023, https://warontherocks.com/2023/09/its-time-to-build-combined-forward-operating-base-sierra-madre/. Accessed 18 Sept. 2023.
Himmelman, Jeff, and Ashley Gilbertson. “A Game of Shark and Minnow.” The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2013, www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/index.html.
“International – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Eia.gov, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 15 Oct. 2019, www.eia.gov/international/analysis/regions-of-interest/South_China_Sea. Accessed 21 Sept. 2023.
Mangosing, Frances. “New Photos Show China Is Nearly Done with Its Militarization of South China Sea.” Inquirer.net, Inquirer.net, 5 Feb. 2018, www.inquirer.net/specials/exclusive-china-militarization-south-china-sea/.
Trevithick, Joseph. “Marines Test Javelin Missile Teams in Rubber Rafts ‘like Somali Pirates, but Better Armed.’” The Drive, The Drive, 22 Mar. 2021, www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39865/marines-test-javelin-missile-teams-in-rubber-rafts-like-somali-pirates-but-better-armed. Accessed 21 Sept. 2023.
Wikipedia Contributors. “BRP Sierra Madre.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRP_Sierra_Madre. Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.
—. “List of Maritime Features in the Spratly Islands.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Aug. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_maritime_features_in_the_Spratly_Islands#Republic_of_the_Philippines. Accessed 26 Sept. 2023.
—. “Spratly Islands.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 May 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spratly_Islands. Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.
Zambrano, Chiara. “On Board the BRP Sierra Madre | ABS-CBN News.” ABS-CBN News, ABS-CBN News, 2014, https://news.abs-cbn.com/specials/sierra-madre. Accessed 20 Sept. 2023.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.