Saturday, May 15, 2021

Covid-19 and Asean’s growing military arsenal


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IN Asia, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), well aware of its limitations and priorities, is keeping apace with military procurement and even weapons development programs to ensure that it will not be left behind in all kinds of defense preparedness.

Philippines. Military modernization program in terms of naval and aerial platforms is well marked in the Philippines. The Philippine Air Force received two attack helicopters last year donated by Jordan while the Philippine Navy commissioned two Wildcat helicopters, eight Korean amphibious assault vehicles and three more multipurpose attack craft this year. The second and final Jose Rizal-class multirole frigate began sea trials in November last year. To be known as the BRP Antonio Luna, the warship is armed with two triple-tube torpedo launchers as well as surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying out a variety of missions e.g., antiair warfare, anti-surface warfare and electronic warfare operations.

Indonesia. With a defense budget equivalent to $8.9 billion, the Indonesian Navy launched its first ever submarine boat assembled in the country. Likewise, an Indonesian state-owned aerospace (PT Digantara Indonesia) unveiled a prototype of an indigenously developed medium- altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle. The country is seeking to acquire more assets to bolster its external territorial defense and internal security. These assets include a locally built modern medium weight tank and more transport aircraft, tanker aircraft, frigates and submarines.

Malaysia. A Malaysian warship was handed over by China as the first of four littoral mission ships on order for the Royal Malaysian Navy.  The service will also be fielding 12 unmanned aerial vehicles from the United States.

As for the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the service expects to formally launch a procurement effort for a light combat aircraft/fighter lead-in trainer to replace several of its current platform types in the near future.

Thailand. A new helicopter-capable landing platform dock is scheduled for delivery this year. The Royal Thai Navy also commissioned its first South Korean made multipurpose frigate and its second capable off-shore patrol vessel.


The Royal Thai Air Force, on the other hand, will equip its fleet of 12 T-50th aircraft with radar systems, radar warning receivers and  countermeasures dispenser system.

Singapore. Singapore has the most potent military among Asean countries. The Royal Singapore Navy received its eighth and final littoral mission vessel to be augmented by new multirole combat vessels while its Air Force has new multirole tanker transports taking over the role of providing air-to-air refueling, airlift support and aero-medical evacuation.

The armed forces’ capability transformation road map envisages new capabilities to underpin the country’s defense from 2030 onwards. In fact, its Hunter armed fighting vehicle will be accompanied by a self-propelled caliber weapon system that will offer a higher rate of firepower and reduced manpower requirements.

Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam received six boat patrol vessels from the US and is scheduled to field an unmanned aerial vehicle as part of a ramp-up of its airborne maritime surveillance capabilities. Expected this year is a high-endurance cutter also from the US.

Myanmar. The Myanmar Navy commissioned its first ever land platform dock amphibian assault ship named UMS Mottama.  Seven more vessels, including a new coastal transport ship, two fast patrol boats, two seagoing tugs and two riverine patrol vessels  were also commissioned. Two missile corvette and various fast attack craft were also inducted on the same occasion.

With a flight deck that can accommodate two helicopters, the UMS Mottama is now the largest asset in Myanmar’s rapidly expanding fleet. It can carry 15 armored vehicles and a contingent of 250 marines while providing hospital facilities.

Brunei Darussalam. The Brunei Royal Navy’s center for excellence (seamanship, warfare, weapon’s handling, firefighting and damage control, communication and engineering training) greatly enhanced the country’s naval operational capabilities with the receipt of offshore patrol vessels from Germany. The Regular Brunei Land Forces, on the other hand, count among its armored vehicles an assault armored vehicle from Jordan as well as armored command vehicle and armored recovery vehicle from the United Kingdom.
The country has shown interest in Russian-made air defense missile systems and upgraded main battle tanks.

Cambodia. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces upgraded its military assets with more helicopters, armored vehicles and patrol boats.

China, by far Cambodia’s closest ally in the Asean bloc, leads among countries that grant military aid to Cambodia.

Lao People’s Democratic Republic.  Laos’  military strength consists of patrol boats, tanks, armored vehicles, towed artillery and helicopters.

Laos and Russia have a long, close defense relationship, which extends to military education, law enforcement cooperation and purchase of military equipment deals. Vietnam helps Laos upgrade its military too.

As noted by  leading provider of defense and security insight and information, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly (UK), Asean countries are modernizing their armed forces as part of a wider Southeast Asian trend towards greater military capabilities. While it described the latest trends in preparation for war  among  world powers as revolving more
Around growth in ballistic missile defense, counter-unmanned aircraft system and weapons with multi-mission capabilities, there are significant signs that indeed cyber and artificial intelligence warfare and nuclear proliferation are the “game-changing” technologies of armed conflict in the near future. In this connection, reference is to the heightened conflict between the US and Iran which brought us nearer to a nuclear war.

Be that as it may, the Asean region is beset by internal threats of terrorism brought about by, to mention a few, the emergence of a terrorist quasi-state in the Middle East as well as home grown terrorist attacks prompting governments to be on extreme alert; maritime security, e.g.,  piracy, kidnapping, smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and illegal fuel transfers in ports and harbors; and environmental security as a consequence of climate-induced super typhoons, tsunamis, heavy monsoon, wildfires, etc. The latter especially demands strengthening Asean military capabilities in anticipation of possible climate wars, e.g., resource war (oil and minerals availability and transport); water wars (diminished water for agriculture leads to dwindling food supplies and water supply shortage for domestic use) and migratory wars (huge movements of people  from uninhabitable areas due to sea level rise and natural disasters). This means more soldiers with different training and weapons defense and security systems designed to operate effectively across the full range of foreseeable future environments altered by a warm climate.

Add to the enumeration the tension that prevails in the region as rivals jostle over territories in the West Philippine Sea which has enormous geo-strategic and economic significance.

Of late, the well-acknowledged secondary role of the military — assistance in times of natural calamities, climate disasters, health emergencies — became evident in countries around the world. Government-declared lockdowns, shutdowns, stay-at-home, shelter in place, community quarantine and physical distancing necessitated the presence of the military in city centers and borders to help in maintaining peace and order in the efforts to contain the spread of the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) after the World Health Organization declared the contagion a pandemic.

In that connection, Asean countries could make use of their respective  military intelligence capability in providing urgently needed combat researches on biological weapons in aid of their war against Covid-19. Mutual assistance could extend to provision of early warning system for pandemics, personal protection equipment and testing kits. The range of assistance could further extend to immediate transport of drugs/vaccines, heavy medical equipment, gadgets and facilities for hospitals and laboratories, as well as  food supply.

The changed security environment in the Asean region led to military arsenal procurement drives to ensure stability. Asean countries have also committed to bilateral and multilateral defense and diplomacy forums to enhance cooperative activities and capabilities. One such is the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the UK). The forum is about peacekeeping operations, military medicine, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, mine countermeasures and maritime security. Another is the Asean Information Sharing Portal which facilitates information exchange between various operational centers within Asean navies. The portal can be accessed even via smart phones of individual officers.

Actually, the combined military “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises undertaken by Asean countries through the years is to ensure inter-operabililty among its military services extending to the use of various equipment and weapons. Inter-operability extends to a limited form of capacity-pooling in submarine search-and rescue arising out of concerns over the safety of submarine operations. While Singapore has the region’s only submarine rescue capability, the pooling scheme will greatly improve the other Asean navies’ operating submarines in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

While working together in interoperability is a great way to attain security,  the most pressing priority for Asean countries is to improve their intelligence-gathering capabilities.

More than any other time, the new era of “intel-centric” warfare using innovative information, communications and computer technologies demands the ability to assess, analyze and decisively act in an emerging situation of critical importance.

In short, military equipment and weapons advantage should be backed up by an effective intelligence capability.



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