MAP Insights


Winds of war are intensifying

written by Mr. RAFAEL “Raffy” M. ALUNAN III - February 6, 2024

The war in Ukraine is at a stalemate. Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russian invading forces has stalled due to delays in military transfers from the US and NATO because of budgetary and replenishment issues. Russia and Ukraine have depleted their war stockpiles and absorbed terrible losses on the ground, in the air, and at sea. For now, they’re down to a protracted fight. Russia is frantically restoring its diminished troop strength and relying on China, Iran, and North Korea for arms and ammo.

The Middle East conflict between Israel and Iran is widening. It began with a sneak attack by Hamas terrorists resulting in brutal murders and unspeakable atrocities. It was followed by Israel’s wrathful reprisal in the Gaza Strip that has reached overkill proportions. Iran’s other proxies are busy — the terror groups in Lebanon and Syria attacked Israel, while Houthi rebels attacked Israeli-linked ships in the Red Sea. American forces were also attacked in Iraq, Syria, and in the Red Sea, prompting robust counterstrikes by US-UK forces.

The latest action came after months of attacks by Houthi forces, in support of Hamas, on commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea and the commercially essential Suez Canal — around 14% of world trade normally transits the area. Yemeni Houthis, who bore the brunt of the air strikes and barrages of Tomahawk missiles, promise to retaliate. So has Iran after absorbing two terror strikes by ISIS in the city of Kerman resulting in 85 dead and 284 injured. Both vow to hit the US and Israel and bring them to their knees.

If this widens, expect oil supply disruptions. The escalating volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the situation will likely lead to shortfalls, sea piracy, and higher inflation. Shipping lines are curtailing their passage through the Red Sea despite the protective presence of Western navies. Rising insurance costs and security risks have forced shippers to take the Cape of Good Hope route which is longer and costlier for importing nations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

In our region, China is at the lead with its Axis partners, namely, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in support. Its aggressive behavior continues. It aims to be the next superpower and change the international order under US-led Western control. It needs to convert independent Southeast Asian nations into tributary states. The Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are bearing the brunt of China’s South China Sea grab, military intimidation, and economic blackmail while deceitfully claiming to be the victim.

I’ve said this before: We are seeing the early stages of World War III unfolding before our eyes. This year’s presidential elections in Taiwan and the USA will greatly influence the fluid situation, apart from China’s gray zone tactics directed against them and us. Biting economic sanctions may lead affected countries to launch a war for survival. Beleaguered leaders of contending powers could also use the war card to deflect attention from domestic troubles. A miscalculation of an opponent’s national power could produce tragic results.

It’s those dynamic forces at play that will determine the path to war. As each day passes, the judgement scale continues to tilt steadily toward armed conflict. I believe that this assessment is shared by many citizens, including those in government: President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, Foreign Affair Secretary Enrique Manalo, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Carlito Galvez. I’ve noted their unity of outlook and purpose in articulating our diplomatic and security policy.

The probability of war reaching our doorsteps, with or without our allies, keeps rising. When we were alone from 1991-2019 to deal with China’s arrogant coercions, it ignored our diplomatic protests and continued to bully and threaten us. After the USA, the UK, Japan, Australia, and some NATO countries finally came to life, China still remains unmoved. Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPS, joint patrols and exercises haven’t deterred China. Its behavior indicates that it really wants to be the new tiger on the hill, and ready to rumble.

An armed clash could happen this year or next. As such, preparedness cannot be over-emphasized should the worst case happen. War between the great powers will, beyond a reasonable doubt, adversely impact our society and the economy. Evidently, our communities must have the mindset to deal with what may come, while our government and our allies search for better ways to deter China from going kinetic — that can only bring the whole world down with it.

Our planning must include what we, as a major non-NATO ally, should also do in case deterrence fails. A fast and furious recounting of offered solutions is in order and, in some cases, in exchange for Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA concessions.

  • Rapidly equip all under-armed and unarmed naval ships with similar or the same weapons, missile systems, and combat information centers as the forthcoming corvettes.
  • Rapidly acquire and/or manufacture smart kamikaze air-sea-land-launched drones in sufficient quantities that will ensure sustained operations against interloping or invading forces.
  • Request for hot transfers from the USA, Japan, and South Korea of F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s being replaced by F-35s; A-10s; HIMARS; and missile frigates from NATO about to be replaced, under WW2-like lend-lease terms.
  • Beef up the inventories of FA-50s, Brahmos standoff missiles, ATMOS artillery batteries, SPYDER anti-aircraft missile systems; Shaldag V fast attack craft; Sabra light tanks; C4ISTAR systems, etc.
  • Request for unfettered access to fuel, food, medical, communications, weapons and munitions stockpiles; and infrastructure development funding to harden logistics centers and networks, and build community air raid bunkers.
  • Rapidly reinvent the Reserve Force for combat to reinforce the regular forces and for Operations Other Than War, particularly civil defense.

War risk mitigation and crisis management readiness may be dichotomous imperatives, but we must go beyond our best to save our children and their future because only the dead will see the end of war.


Rafael “Raffy” M. Alunan III is a trustee of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, a life member of the Management Association of the Philippines, and incumbent president of the Rotary Club of Manila.