Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Philippines versus
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front

Fighting has begun again between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Both parties had, until recently, been engaged in negotiating an end to their conflict.

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine air force planes and helicopters began airstrikes against Muslim rebel strongholds with in a new anti-terrorist crackdown, military officials said. 

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, before leaving on a state visit to the United States, authorized the military on Saturday to use aerial and artillery attacks on "embedded terrorist cells" blamed for recent bombings in the Mindanao region.

The rebels have denied involvement in the recent attacks, but Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Eid Kabalu has said that artillery attacks began shortly after Arroyo ordered fresh assaults.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines are unlikely to be able to defeat the MILF outright. What follows is comparative analysis of the strengths of the two combatants, which forms the basis for that judgment. 

The Philippine Army has approximately 30 battalions in Mindanao. The Philippine Marines have 10 battalions in theater. A Philippine battalion has a typical line infantry strength of 500 men. Combat support units make up a further strength, but to keep comparisons simple, only foxhole strength will be considered.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front claims a strength of over 60 battalions, it's likely strength lies between 10 to 30 Philippine battalion equivalents, with the lower number the more probable, making allowance for the fluidity of membership between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Abu Sayaf.

Their deployments mirror each other. The Armed Forces of the Philippines are where the MILF strength is greatest.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines have a budget of about US$1 billion a year. However, much of this money is used for salaries and wages. No reliable numbers are available on the funding of the MILF, though it is likely to be less than the amount of money available to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Operationally, however, the differences in money  may be less pronounced. A recent US military training mission to the Philippines found that AFP units were often reluctant to zero the sights on their weapons due to the lack of ammunition. Among the items requested by the Philippines from the United States were really basic items like "30,000 M-16 infantry rifles with 120,000 magazines", "twenty-five 81mm mortars, and 350 M-203 grenade launchers". Ammunition supply has long been a sore point in the AFP. The Government Arsenal is hoping to someday obtain the paltry sum of US$10 million to reliably manufacture the old M193 .556 mm ammunition, along with the newer SS-109 standard.

But the real weakness of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is obvious from the order of battle shown below. It is a garrison force, with almost no tactical mobility. Even the better equipped Philippine Marines have a mere handful of mobility assets. This is compounded by a lack of modern communications equipment and position locating devices, which makes maneuver, force separation and the avoidance of inadvertent targeting very problematic. As a result whole brigades and battalions are chained to their garrison towns. The Philippine military has an extremely limited ability to maneuver and concentrate forces. The actual mobile strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines consists of a the Scout Ranger and Special Forces battalions and some Marine units. As practical matter then, the Armed Forces of the Philippines cannot achieve anything like the numerical superiority they enjoy on paper.

The lack of mobility and manuever capability is not offset by a corresponding strength in supporting arms. For example, the offensive launched against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on May 18th used:

"The head of the military's Southern Command in Zamboanga, Lt. Gen. Roy Kyamko, told a news conference that OV-10 planes dropped six 250-pound bombs on MILF strongholds along the mountainous boundary of southern Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte provinces. MG520 helicopters also rocketed rebel positions there, military officials said."

General Kyamko said that another 135 artillery rounds were fired besides. Now these are truly pathetic numbers given the 5 battalion assault force said to be involved.  The total amount of ordnance used comes to .75 tons of bombs and (135 x 50 lbs/per 105 mm shell), or 4.125 tons of dumb projectiles. During the recently concluded Operation Iraqi Freedom, individual US aircraft carriers delivered 1,000 tons of smart bombs per day every day. A single US M-109 SP-howitzer will fire 3.5 tons of shell in an hour and a half. While comparisons with a superpower force are not intended, it is obvious that while the Philippine military can dislodge the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from individual villages and strong points, it cannot sweep it from the field. And due to its marginal superiority in numbers and firepower at the point of contact, the kill ratio between government troops and rebels will never be very high.

Moreover, the poverty of the Philippine armed forces means that even this pitiful tempo cannot be sustained for long. The current "offensive" can be maintained for a few weeks, then it will run out of logistical steam as the small number of mobile troops becomes worn out and ammunition is exhausted.

Conclusion: the Philippine Government and the MILF will dance around; kill a few of each other and more of the civilians by misadventure and collateral damage, and then stagger back to the negotiating table, not out of fight, but out of breath -- until the next round of inconclusive fighting.

Philippine Army Units in Mindanao


Philippine Marine Units In Mindanao