Government scrambles to boost maritime security

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Metro Manila (Philippines) — The National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) is supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility that will monitor the Philippines' 36,000 kilometer-coastline.

The problem is it's not working yet.

Just this month, the center failed to monitor two incidents off Batanes Island — a military exercise by China and a two-hour standoff between Philippine Coast Guard and its Taiwanese counterpart.

Commodore Joel Garcia, NCWC director, admits the system at this time does not see scenarios in real time.

The center learned about these two events within the country's exclusive economic zone only through "sources."

"We were monitoring what had been transpiring in Batanes — not in real time but based on the intermittent reports coming from several sources," Garcia says.

He is confident, however, that the system will be fully operational as scheduled by the end of 2015.

Commodore Joel Garcia, NCWC director, admits the system at this time does not see scenarios in real time.

The United States spent P890 million to put up the NCWC building and buy the technology it will use. But the equipment — coastal radar system, satellite capability, and regional centers which comprise the second phase of the project — are not yet in place.

"We are talking here of satellite constellation," Garcia says. "So that's the vision for the center."

Security and defense expert Jose Antonio Custodio says the NCWC project is promising because it enables the government to detect in real time the presence of intruders anywhere within Philippine waters.

But the need for the system to be fully functional is urgent, he stresses.

"The years of neglect have given us no choice but accelerate in all aspects already," he says.

With proper funding, the NCWC can install radar facilities along the coasts of Palawan, La Union, Batanes, and the Zamboanga Peninsula this year.

This should fill in the gaps in monitoring the country's sea borders caused by a lack of manpower and a weak Navy and Coast Guard.

But what's the use of a monitoring center if the country's men and women at sea, the front-liners, remain ill-equipped?

So the government, through a P7.3-billion loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, has purchased 10 multirole response vessels from a Japanese firm. The first batch should arrive by the third quarter of this year, with the entire delivery being completed by 2018.

While there may be progress in addressing security concerns along the country's borders, much still need to be done — and more funding provided — for the country to credibly face challenges posed by neighbors like China and Taiwan.

"It's not something you can sweep under the rug," Custodio says. "If 24 kilometers away from Batanes we're already being challenged in our territory, that's a big problem."

Experts estimate that at least P70 billion is needed for a capability upgrade program to enable the Coast Guard to effectively patrol the country's coastline against intruders.