During the Battle of Marawi, many observers pointed to the lack of anything in the arsenal of the Philippine military that had the necessary heavy firepower to engage and eliminate strongly defended targets and adequate armor to protect against incoming enemy fire.
The military even lacked a decent tank. Almost nothing in the Philippine military’s inventory of armored vehicles matches the basic definition of a tank. There is, of course, the British FV101 Scorpion light tank, of which very few units remain in the army, but it is considered a reconnaissance vehicle more than a true tank. Turrets of decommissioned Scorpions have been married to M113 armored personnel carriers to create a fire support vehicle. However, the design is inadequate given the vulnerability of the M113’s vertical aluminum armor that can be penetrated by heavy machine gun fire or set ablaze by rocket propelled grenades. That explains all the add-on armor of wood and galvanized sheets or anything Filipino soldiers could mount on their armored vehicles to defeat RPG attacks. From among Filipino troops came remarks that perhaps there would be a need to acquire a real tank to increase firepower and survivability in future combat situations.
Acquiring a tank has been an elusive goal for the Philippine Army. Three reasons usually are made against proposals to acquire one. First, that tanks are not needed in counter insurgency. Second, that the Philippines is not tank country or not suitable for tanks. Third, that such vehicles are expensive.
However, these reasons fly against historical evidence.
During the Second World War, both the Japanese and American forces deployed hundreds of tanks during the 1941-1942 invasion campaign and the 1944-1945 liberation campaign. In fact, at least two tank battles were fought in the Philippines between these opposing armies, one at Bulacan and the other at Pangasinan. During the Battle for the Liberation of Manila in 1945, the Americans used Sherman medium tanks to eliminate Japanese defenses in built-up areas. These disprove the claim that the Philippines is ill-suited for tanks.
The postwar Philippine Army was an extensive user of left-over Sherman tanks against Huk rebels and in the 1960s the United States supplied a company of modern M41 Walker Bulldog light tanks to the Philippines. The M41, despite its light tank designation, was more of a medium tank and, with its high velocity dual 76-mm gun, was capable of destroying Russian and Chinese-made T-54 main battle tanks during the Vietnam War. The PA used that tank until the early 1980s.
The last tank ever purchased by the Philippines was the FV101 Scorpion in the mid-1970s, a response to the MNLF rebellion. This contradicts the argument that they are not needed in counter insurgency operations. Yet by some inexplicable phenomenon, despite voluminous texts and photographic evidences on the use of tanks in the Philippines, some entity deep within the bowels of the Philippine defense sector decreed that tanks are not useful in the country, and it has been that way in the past 30 years.
Once again there is a revival in interest within the Philippine military in acquiring tanks for the modernization program. The problem though is that, left to the devices of the Sisyphean momentum of the modernization program, an acquisition may only be realized many years from now, if at all. That being said, the threat exists, and there are rumors of Maute reorganizing, secessionist rebels posturing, and even possible future targets being cited, such as Cotabato City. In other words, the situation is very fluid.
An alternative solution is to acquire a stop gap tank and identify an affordable one that is available in surplus and easy to use. A possible candidate is again the M41 Walker Bulldog. It is still in the inventory of Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan, and in large numbers with many modernized or in storage to be used in emergencies. As these are considered as originally property of the US perhaps Washington can mediate for the quick transfer of a dozen units with logistical and maintenance lifelines following consultations and meetings. Thailand once turned over excess American supplied OV10 Broncos to the Philippines. These would not be expensive for the PA to operationalize within a short period to face any contingency in the near future.
There is a military axiom that goes like so: “Do not plan your next battle by fighting your last battle.” This means that your opponent would have adapted and would have come up with a means to defeat the methods you used to win. Hence, Philippine rebels and terrorists of whatever stripe and color would have taken down notes during the recently concluded Battle of Marawi and may just conduct their next assault in a different manner. It is then the defense sector’s responsibility to plan accordingly for any eventuality and not dismiss something on the basis of flawed assumptions.
Jose Antonio Custodio is a Non-Resident Security Fellow, Stratbase ADR Institute.