The role of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in development has not been fully articulated. This essay attempts to show why it is necessary to provide budgetary support for the PCG, but it is equally important to determine where the priorities should be.
It was during the early US occupation, on October 17, 1901, that the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation was created. Its primary mandate was to maintain lighthouses, support the transportation of government officials in different provinces, and prevent illegal entry of immigrants. It was much later, by virtue of Republic Act 5173, that the Philippine Coast Guard became one of the sub-units under the Philippine Navy, retaining its mandate on maritime law enforcement and maritime safety. Before President Fidel Ramos stepped down in 1998, he signed an Executive Order transferring the PCG to the Department of Transportation and Communications.
After more than a decade, Congress passed the “Philippine Coast Guard Law of 2009,” clearly stipulating therein that the PCG is an armed uniformed service that has the mandate to carry out maritime safety, marine environmental protection, maritime security and law enforcement and maritime search and rescue.
In 2012 the PCG gained prominence after its white ships replaced the Philippine Navy vessels in patrolling the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to reduce the tension during the Scarborough Shoal stand-off. This strategy had been sustained as the Philippines has complied with the agreed norms among claimants that the WPS should not be militarized.
Since then, the PCG has been receiving various grants from different countries to boost its capability especially in maritime security.
Just recently the PCG commissioned two 24-meter fast patrol boats, which were built by Ocea Company and funded through a loan agreement with the French government. In recent years, the vessel inventory of PCG has gradually increased. The PCG will eventually have its offshore patrol vessels soon, one 82-meter vessel will come from France and two 94-meter vessels will come from Japan.
There is a report that the Netherlands is proposing to provide 503 patrol boats to the PCG for free. Although such an offer is complicated to turn down, the PCG leadership must come up with a sound and rational planning as to how it wants to modernize and strengthen its capability. It is not as simple as having more bottoms to make the PCG more powerful. The PCG must consider the maintenance and operational costs should these vessels be placed under the PCG.
The PCG now has eight Australian-built Search and Rescue vessels (SARVs), ten Japanese-built Multi-Role Response Vessels, a tugboat, a 60-meter Japanese buoy tender and the ten Spanish-built Monitoring Controlling Surveillance vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, which the PCG currently mans.
With the growing number of PCG ships, the PCG leadership must assess if new bottoms from its benefactors are still on the top of its wish list.
The PCG has to determine whether the SARVs are still in tiptop condition after almost two decades as its only working assets. It is already an open book that the majority of these vessels are not as “ready for sea” as they were many years ago. Due to wear and tear and subsequent grounding incidents, these vessels need major rehabilitation. The rehabilitation of the SARVs is a rational choice since the cost would be less than constructing a new one.
This inventory is not yet enough for the PCG to effectively perform its mandate that includes maritime safety, maritime law enforcement, pollution prevention, and maritime security.
It is necessary to evaluate what the PCG needs right now. On the one hand the national budget constrains the PCG modernization because tax revenues prioritize infrastructure and social services. On the other hand, other developed countries like Japan, the United States, and even European counties are all willing to pour grants and loans for the PCG. In this light, the PCG needs to make the right and reasonable requests.
Furthermore, it is about time that the PCG professionalized its personnel who have the competence in repairing and maintaining the ships. However, improving the skillset of its personnel has to go hand in hand with developing a coast guard shipyard. No matter how many times the United States and Japan train the PCG personnel in repairing ships, this will still come to naught if the Philippines lacks the needed repair facility. The PCG cannot forever be dependent on commercial shipyards for repair and maintenance. With the US planning to support the establishment of an outboard motor repair academy and with the increasing number of PCG vessels, the PCG must have its shipyard that developing countries like Japan and United States can support in founding.
Another consideration is the port facility. The Department of Transportation has not yet constructed new ports for PCG’s exclusive use. There are only two known berthing spaces for the PCG’s exclusive use; the first is at the back of the PCG National Headquarters and the second is at the South Harbor where the PCG shares the docking area with the presidential yacht and the Presidential Security Group. PCG vessels berthed inside ports managed by the Philippine Ports Authority in different parts of the country are even asked to leave to accommodate commercial ships that are a source of income. The safety or security of an expensive government asset is disregarded in favor of earning berth fees. Having no ports or wharves for the vessel is akin to having an expensive car with no garage.
Another necessity is the purchase of aircraft. It is with so much irony that an agency whose mandate includes search and rescue operations in a country of more than 7,100 islands that is visited by an average of 22 typhoons annually has only two units of Britten Norman islander aircraft and two Bell helicopters. Worse only one of each aircraft type is operational.
The PCG has been pushing for the acquisition of additional aircraft since 2010, but nothing has materialized. Though the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) procurement service has already completed the bidding and is optimistic that the first Airbus helicopter will be delivered soon, the PCG leadership should be able to court attention from its foreign benefactors that acquisition of air assets is likewise necessary.
The last one is the establishment of radar stations within the country. The PCG should have a detailed real-time maritime domain awareness (MDA) of its coastal areas from its northernmost island to the last territory in Mindanao that borders Malaysia and Indonesia. The National Coast Watch Centers (NCWC) through the assistance of the United States government have established radar stations in selected regions. For an archipelagic country where thousands of international vessels pass through within its maritime jurisdiction, there is no way that the PCG can effectively monitor those ships that violate international and domestic laws, pollute our seas and jeopardize national security without a well-established radar/automatic information system (AIS) stations nationwide.
With the limited PCG budget, it must reconfigure its wish list in order to optimize what the official donors can provide for the accomplishment of the PCG’s mandate of ensuring a safe, clean, secure, and peaceful sea.
All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of the Philippine Coast Guard.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. Action for Economic Reforms has initiated collaboration with Filipino scholars under GRIPS.