Scarborough this week: Chinese cutters and fishing vessels

In an effort to highlight the both the value and limits of Vessel Traffic Management Systems (VTMS) to maritime domain awareness, the following thread was created on the DefensePH forum: Who are the people in the neighborhood. The intent for the thread was to post data obtained from various free vessel traffic monitoring Websites that draw information from Automatic Identification System (AIS) services around the world. All screen captures presented in this article come from

This idea is not new. In fact, there was at least one Philippine FB group that focused on collecting AIS data with the end goal of collecting maritime intelligence. While noteworthy, the idea was hobbled by the fact the free AIS data is notoriously unreliable. While freely available AIS can indicate the presence of a ship, the absence of visible ships is not definitive indicator that no ships are actually present — making it ultimately meaningless as in a security context. Furthermore, identity information contained within AIS reports is not tamper proof. According to Windward, a maritime domain awareness company, 1% of all AIS data is actually faked.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, AIS-data-watching was a potentially fun community activity to which any DefensePH forum member could contribute. So in keeping with the forum’s long-standing goal of promoting roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something-patriotism, the thread was rolled out as project on Valentine’s Day, 2017.

Note: For OPSEC purposes, Philippine government vessels are excluded from this thread.

The first activity was to scour major ports for interesting ship-spotting opportunities. Perusal of AIS data in Subic Bay, for example, detected the presence of an outgoing US Navy replenishment vessel that was on the way to East Jahor.

What was not expected, was that Scarborough / Panatag / Bajo Masinloc was actually generating AIS data. Chinese vessels — either deliberately or unintentionally — were announcing their presence in the shoal.

The first vessel detected in the initial inspection was China Coast Guard cutter #3175, a 78-meter member of Shuke II class of cutters.


Exactly how long the vessel had been on station is unclear as the AIS time stamp only refers to the last update event. At that point, the ship had been on station at least 6 hours. It remains in the shoal as of writing.

Not long the initial find, Yu Zheng 312 broadcasted its presence. This 101-meter, 4,590 ton, ship used to be a tanker in the PLA Navy, designated Dongyou 621. It was converted into a fishery patrol vessel and recommissioned in 2013 — becoming the largest member of the fleet at the time.


The photo below shows the vessel on its maiden voyage in its fishery patrol role. Photo c/o China Daily.


The week ended with the detection of three addition vessels in the shoal. AIS data indicated that two were fishing boats designated Qiongsanshay U00313 and Qiongsanshay U00110. No additional validation of this identity was available as of writing.

The third vessel, however, was another coast guard cutter: #3304x. Interestingly, this contact illustrated the imperfection of AIS-based identification as the full number of the vessel was unavailable. It was presumably a member of the Hongming class cutter, a 42-meter vessel.


The presence of these assets in the the shoal demonstrates China’s continued resolve to impose its regulatory controls over the shoal despite their defeat at an UNCLOS tribunal that ruled that their 9-dashed-line claim had no basis in international law.

Chinese patrol vessels within the confines of this shoal came to the forefront of Philippine national consciousness in 2012 when these prevented Filipino fishermen from accessing their traditional fishing ground as part of China’s reinvigorated their efforts to enforce the 9-dashed line claim mentioned above. This resulted in encounters between Philippine and Chinese coast guard ships like the following.

In October 2016, the Duterte administration brokered an agreement with China to allow Philippine fishing boats back to the shoal while side-stepping the matter of exclusive access granted the Philippines by UNCLOS. (See Duterte said he told Chinese: Scarborough is ours). Provided this unfettered access remains, the mere presence of Chinese vessels merely serves as a reminder of PH-CN tensions, and not an indication of another 2012-style escalation.

The price of freedom: P700M to keep aircraft in the air

Sacrifice and blood are the currency of freedom. However, a pre-requisite for use of that human currency is treasure. The tools that allow the AFP to perform their duty must be kept in good working order. That requires money, and as the number and capability of AFP equipment goes, so does the need for a financial commitment to defense.

This article spotlights the operational expenses the Philippine Air Force is looking to spend on its aircraft in February 2017. According to postings on PhilGEPS, a total of P699.3M were slated for aircraft maintenance projects ranging from the acquisition of spares for air-frames or engines, to repair of support equipment assigned to specific aircraft. This is broken down as follows:

KAI FA-50PH This Lead-In Fighter Trainer / Surface Attack Aircraft is the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the PAF inventory. Four acquisition projects for this aircraft have a total value of P140.2M. See here for details
AgustaWestland AW-109AH Acquired after multiple failed acquisition projects dating back to 2006, the AW-109 is the first night-capable attack helicopters in the PAF. Three acquisition projects for this aircraft have a total value of P48.526M. See here for details ah3
MD-520  Acquired as part of the first AFP modernization program, these gunships have been providing close air support to AFP ground troops since the late 90s. Two acquisition projects for this aircraft have a combined value of P23.6M. See here for details  
Aero TC-690 Commander  This is a special-use for which the PAF has is a solitary maintenance project valued at P10.4M. See here for details.
Fokker F-27 Friendship Four maintenance projects for these long-serving troop transports had a total value of P86.4M. See here for details.  
GAF N-22 Nomad This project covered the spares and maintenance costs for three N-22s, valued at P17.43M. See here for details  
Siai-Marchetti SF-260  Overhaul and repair of the propeller assembly of aircraft resulted in a P2.63M project. See here for details sf260
Bell UH-1  The largest fleet of any aircraft type in the PAF understandably results in the largest maintenance budget of any aircraft in this list. Projects totalled P200.9M. See here for details  
Bell 412  Communication equipment maintenance and inspections for this aircraft resulted in two projects with a combined value of P59.2M. See here for details bell-helicopter
Lycoming T-53-L-13B  These three maintenance projects were specifically for engines used by specific UH-1/Bell 204 models in the PAF inventory. Total project cost is P102M. See here for details
Aerospace Ground Equipment  These are projects for undisclosed ground support equipment, valued at  P7.9M. See here for details

Such is the price of freedom. As the AFP acquire increasing number of aircraft with greater capability, these costs will continue to grow. When full-spectrum air defense capabilities are realized, this value can only go up. Hence the need to inculcate in the minds of the average Filipino that defense is an investment, not an expense.

This discussion is also available on the forum here:

What does the Philippines really bring to the table?

As Duterte plays the US against China, and even Russia in a Cold War-style diplomatic gambit not unlike what Yugoslavia, Egypt did with the West and the USSR, it is important to ask:

What does the Philippines REALLY brings to the table?

A failure to assess our relative value to either side could very well result in overplaying our hand. Discuss this on the forum here:


Service bulletin: Difficulty creating tables on the forum

I used to be able to create tables with blank cells so that I could make my tables look better. The tables I’ve already created still retain their formats. But whenever I create new table, these blank cells are automatically deleted. For this reason, I’ve had to put the PLA-Navy list on hold.

This is apparently a bug in version 2.0.12 of the SMF forum software. This bug is discussed here.

PAF spending P67.96M on C295 spares

The Philippine Air Force currently has three separate bid invitations to supply spares for its CASA C295 cargo aircraft with a combined value of P67.96M. The Pre-Bid Conference for all three invites are set for November 2, 2016 at the PAF Procurement Center Conference Room in Villamor Air Force Base. Bids will be opened on the 15th.

The PAF has three C295s in its inventory, all of which were delivered in 2015.  The first aircraft was delivered on March 30, 2015, while the second aircraft arrived on September 15, 2015, and the third arrived on December 11, 2015.

All three bids are being monitored on the forum here.