The regular resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal that was scheduled last week, dubbed RORE (rotation and resupply), the first for this year 2024, had to be scuttled. This was the announcement made Monday by the AFP spokesperson, who explained that they encountered “technical difficulties” with the civilian vessels they had been using for these RORE missions.
The AFP did not state this, but there were unverified reports on social media, including pictures, of an airdrop that was done instead. When asked during the briefing, the AFP spokesperson, Col. Francel Margareth Padilla, merely commented that an airdrop is part of their “operational mix” in undertaking the RORE missions.
Two civilian vessels, the Unaiza Mae 1 and 2, had figured in several cat-and-mouse encounters with the Chinese Coast Guard in the past. It turned out that the vessels had to undergo repairs for damages they incurred during their past missions. The poor vessels had experienced being water cannoned and rammed.
China continues to harass these supply missions to BRP Sierra Madre; the last one was in December, when it shadowed a convoy organized by the volunteer group Atin Ito as it approached Ayungin Shoal, forcing the captain of its lead ship to turn back.
There is no sign that the Chinese are backpedaling from their belligerent posture of asserting sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea. Beijing even harshly reacted to Manila’s congratulatory note on the recent Taiwanese elections, even going below the belt to insult President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which the palace simply opted to brush aside.
The problem with the airdrop is that it is inadequate as a means to transport the supplies needed for BRP Sierra Madre, including those needed to maintain the rusting ship. Using it as a means to undertake RORE also leaves a bad taste in the mouth as a tacit admission that China has control over the area and the Philippines does not even have a suitable seagoing vessel to stand in for Unaiza Mae.
The airdrop sends a political message to Beijing, saying that the Philippines has a weak capacity to support BRP Sierra Madre. It speaks volumes about the planning capacity of the AFP, with its total reliance on Unaiza Mae to do the all-important RORE missions. It bares open the logistical gaps of the Western Command tasked with undertaking the support operations for BRP Sierra Madre. For an important national security concern, RORE missions should not and must not be saddled with “technical issues.”
Monday’s AFP briefing did not go into details about the current operational challenges they are facing in these resupply missions. But the AFP and the Philippine government need to address this issue decisively and have to show the muscle and wherewithal to, at the very least, sustain unimpeded RORE missions.
In this time of relative peace, the airdrops to BRP Sierra Madre are pitiful signs of incapacity.