On January 22nd, the Philippines announced they cancelled a resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal (STS) scheduled to occur over the weekend. An Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Colonel Francel Padilla said that one of the contracted civilian vessels, the Unaizah Mae (UM) 1, had unspecified ‘technical difficulties’ that prevented its use. The spokesperson then said that the mission will go ahead once the ship is repaired and deemed ship worthy.
However, Padilla said that the personnel are ‘trained for any eventualities’ when asked if they are in danger of starving due to the cancelled mission. Padilla also said that the AFP would do everything possible to provide the personnel stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre – a World War II-era Landing Ship Tank – with the necessary provisions. She also said that the while the military has the capability to deliver supplies via airdrop, this option would be considered only in ‘emergency situations.’
Vessels Used for the Resupply Missions
The AFP primarily relies on two vessels to conduct resupply missions to STS, the UM 1 and the UM 2, which are two wooden-hulled vessels measuring approximately 79 feet (24 m) in length. However, the UM 2 received damage during an October 2023 resupply mission when it collided with a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel. The Philippines decided to use the M/L Kalayaan, a ship owned by the Municipality of Kalayaan, to conduct missions while the UM 1 underwent repairs. However, the Kalayaan also received heavy damage to its engine room from a CCG spraying it with a water cannon during the last resupply mission in December 2023. The damage caused the vessel to become nonoperational and required a Philippine Coast Guard vessel to the ship to be towed back to port. The UM 1 received some damage after being rammed by a CCG vessel during the resupply mission but successfully delivered supplies to the Sierra Madre.
The announcement that the Philippines cancelled the resupply mission due to a vessel having technical issues illustrates the constraints the country finds itself in. For example, the AFP only relies on the UM 1 and 2 to limit the possibility that CCG and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships would increase harassing and monitoring other Philippine civilian vessels. The Philippines knows that China actively monitors the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the resupply vessels involved in the STS resupply missions. China would also extend its monitoring activities to include any additional civilian vessels the AFP uses on a temporary basis. However, the CCG and Maritime Militia boats will also sail aggressively around the civilian vessels if they believe they will be sailing to join a convoy bound for the shoal. The only reason why the Philippines chose to use the ML Kalayaan for a resupply mission in October is due to the vessel belonging to the municipality of Kalayaan, which includes the STS.
Another constraint is the AFP’s reluctance to resupply the personnel stationed at the Sierra Madre through airdrop missions using either its BN-2 Islander or C-130 aircraft. The most significant reason is the Philippines does not want to increase tensions China by using aircraft to conduct aerial resupply missions. All three of the islands – Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs – China artificially created are capable of housing and operating mobile Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems such as the HQ-9B. The SAM systems would allow China to target and lock on the aircraft, causing them to cancel the mission and return to their base without resupplying the shoal. Another reason is that China would respond by sending jet aircraft such as the J-11 or SU-30 multirole jet fighters to harass the aircraft before, during, and after the resupply missions. The harassment also has the potential for an incident to occur such as a Chinese aircraft crashes into its Philippine counterpart, destroying and killing both aircraft and crew. However, the Philippines would also likely not conduct airdrops due to the increased maintenance and repair time the aircraft would need after every mission. The increased maintenance and repair for the aircraft means increased costs that would take up more of the AFP’s budget rather than go towards its military modernization efforts.