MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine military is realigning its modernization program to strengthen territorial and coastal defense amid escalating tension with China.

On Sunday, the Philippines reported Chinese ships collided with a crewed military supply vessel escorted by two Coast Guard ships en route to BRP Sierra Madre, an actively commissioned ship by the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

Philippine Army Chief of Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner said changes are geared toward protecting the country’s territories in the South China Sea, particularly Thitu Island. That land mass, called Pag-asa Island by the Philippines, is home to more than 400 Filipinos. It is also one of several disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The third phase of the military’s 15-year modernization plan, dubbed Horizon 3, includes the acquisition of multirole fighter jets, radars, two additional Jose Rizal-class frigates, missile systems, helicopters and the country’s first submarine fleet.

Initial plans also included acquiring additional BrahMos missiles and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems for the Army for coastal defense.

The modernization effort began in 2013, but budget limitations have delayed progress. Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro told lawmakers last month that 10% of Horizon 1, meant to take place from 2013 to 2018, and about 53% of Horizon 2, scheduled from 2018 to 2022, are complete.

“That is why we have to re-strategize, because the paradigms for Horizon 2 may not be valid anymore,” Teodoro said at the time.

However, in response to clashes between China and the Philippines in recent weeks, Manila is speeding up its acquisition plans, with the legislature earmarking 45 billion pesos (U.S. $793 million) in defense spending for 2024. Senators have relayed support in passing supplemental budgets for intelligence and materiel acquisitions related to South China Sea operations.

Last week, the Defense Department ordered three C-130J-30 Super Hercules tactical airlifters for delivery in 2026, according to a news release from Lockheed Martin. The Philippines is also expecting to receive two BrahMos missile units in December from India; more Acero-class gunboats next year under a deal with Israel; two new landing dock platforms from Indonesia next year; two corvettes from South Korea around the 2025 and 2026 time frame; and six offshore patrol vessels also from South Korea in 2028.

Horizon 3 requires 500 billion pesos spread out over the next six years, but it is unclear how the government intends to finance the program. However, some countries have offered assistance. For example, France pitched its Scorpene diesel-electric submarines as early as 2019, and its proposal includes helping the Philippines Navy develop its base in Zambales.

Others bidding to supply the Philippines with submarines include Spain, which submitted a $1.7 billion offer to supply two S-80-class sub, and South Korea’s Hanwha Ocean, which updated its proposal last month for two Jangbogo-III diesel-electric submarines.

While the Philippine military has yet to release its final plans for Horizon 3, the realignment will include less but “more potent” assets and platforms, according to Brawner. The materiel will align with the country’s forward-defense strategy, where threats are “pushed as further away as possible,” Brawner said, adding that the military’s goal is to immediately deploy fighter jets and other assets after reported encounters with Chinese vessels.

According to the country’s new territorial defense strategy released last week, the Philippines is placing particular importance on islands it claims as its own, including in what the government calls the West Philippine Sea, namely Thitu Island, Loaita Cay, West York Island, Flat Island and Nanshan Island.

Leilani Chavez is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. Her reporting expertise is in East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.

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