PacNet #21 – The Philippine and Indonesian Militaries’ War On Covid-19, and What it Means for Reform

Pacnet image.jpg

Faced with limited resources and poor health care systems, Indonesia and the Philippines have used their militaries to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are known for their heavy reliance on military resources. The Covid-19 response has proven this dependency as the two presidents put military men in charge of task forces to handle the pandemic, hoping the organizational effectiveness of the armed forces would produce a fruitful outcome. While this pragmatic approach might be useful in the short term, continuation of this strategy could strain civil-military relations in the long term.

Indonesia: Personal Ties and Critical Legacy of Territorial Structure

Jokowi’s appointment of Doni Monardo, a three-star army general and a former commander of the Army’s Special Force (Kopassus) and the Presidential Security Details (Paspampres), as the head of National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) is unsurprising, as leadership of the organization has traditionally been held by military officers since its inception, relying on their strong leadership, vast networks, and ability to provide a swift response in times of emergency. However, Monardo’s appointment, plus the inclusion of a number of senior military figures on the task force, such as Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto and Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto, present implications both for inter-military dynamics and civil-military relations.

Having military figures on the central structures has had a domino effect on the task force at the regional level. Jakarta Military Command Chief Maj. Gen. Eko Margiyono was appointed head of Jakarta’s new emergency hospital. Monardo and Margiyono are close associates in the army. In 2010, Margiyono replaced Monardo as the group A commander of the Paspampres. Both have also served as the commander of Kopassus. For Monardo to work with someone he trusts and is familiar with arguably enhances coordination with the central government.

The military also offers its overarching territorial command structure for the speedy distribution of relief. Following the formation of the task force, Prabowo Subianto requested that the armed forces dispatch an aircraft to pick up medical kits from Shanghai. The military later distributed them to each region across the archipelago, deploying the air force’s aircraft. The Military District Command coordinated distribution.

Territorial command has always been the target of military reform due to its past political interventions under the New Order regime. However, civilian authorities seem reluctant to push more substantial reforms, given that the structure has been a reliable counterpart in times of crisis. The use of army territorial structure in handling the Covid-19 response clearly added another strong justification for maintaining the system.

Philippines: Marawi and Military Work Culture

In mid-March, President Duterte declared the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for the entire Luzon area, followed by the formation of the National Task Force (NTF) on  Covid-19 led by three retired military generals: Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as chairman, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano as vice chairman, and Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr as chief implementer. The three generals are no strangers to one another. They worked together during the five-month Marawi Siege: Lorenzana as the administrator of martial law, Ano as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and chief implementor of martial law, and Galvez as Western Mindanao Command chief.

Bayan Muna party-list lawmakers lambasted the appointment, saying the ECQ is an undeclared martial law and health experts or economists should have been at the wheel. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo was quick to defend Duterte’s choice, arguing that the retired generals’ discipline, working culture, and less bureaucratic nature will be essential in curbing the pandemic.

The appointment of senior military figures also allows rapid deployment of AFP, as there is a high degree of obedience among military men toward their seniors. The implementation of the ECQ requires substantial manpower and logistics, of which AFP’s involvement is urgently needed. First, the enormous number of military officers are useful to help guard checkpoints, as the Philippines National Police (PNP) has limited manpower. Second, the AFP’s transportation capability is immensely useful. As examples, AFP picked up medical equipment from China by using the air force’s C-130 aircraft and delivered laboratory specimens from other regions to Manila using light transport aircraft. Third, AFP and local contractors built a makeshift hospital at the Navy’s Naval Station Jose Francisco to accommodate Covid-19 patients.

AFP has been very attentive to not create public fear in performing its duties in guarding the ECQ, ensuring that its personnel will be minimally armed, only for security reasons.  Duterte, however, blundered when he ordered police and military to shoot any ECQ offenders. Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies might become a stumbling block to AFP in pursuing further reforms.

Covid-19 and the Cost to Inter-Military Dynamics

Although there are criticisms of the Jokowi and Duterte administrations’ over their highly securitized approach, it should not be neglected that public approval of the military in both countries is high. In October 2019, Indonesian newspaper Kompas released a survey that the Indonesian armed forces has a positive image among 96.6% respondents, the highest recorded since the post-reformation era. Similarly, in March 2020, private pollster SWS released a survey that showing 79% of respondents were satisfied with the AFP’s performance, thanks to AFP’s efforts to take back control of Marawi.

Deploying uniformed officers, however, comes with a cost for intra-organizational dynamics. The formation of Covid-19 task forces in both countries primarily exploits patron-client relationships between junior and senior officers to reduce frictions in carrying out necessary measures. Patronage-based appointments will further nurture factionalism that has been a recurring problem in both militaries.

The patronage-based system will also lead to ramifications in responding to the outbreak. This pattern indicates that the civilian leadership relies on a particular group to implement policies. As information related to the Covid-19 outbreak remains vague and scattered, it can trigger competition among different factions to gather information in order to improve their bargaining position among civilian authorities. Subsequently, each faction might be reluctant to share information and civilian authorities will encounter challenges in putting together the puzzle. This trend also raises questions over military professionalism as it indicates that obedience is determined not by the established chain of command or hierarchy, but personal allegiance.

Chaula Rininta Anindya ( is a Research Analyst with the Indonesian Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #9 – A New Space Race? The Meaning Behind Japan’s New Plans

Pacnet image.jpg

This article originally appeared at East Asia Forum and is reprinted with permission.

During the new session of parliament in January this year Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reiterated his pledge to utilize outer space to guarantee national security. Only last year, Abe confirmed that a unit responsible for space operations will be established inside the Air Self-Defense Force (SDF) by the start of fiscal year 2020.

The announcements triggered media attention and concerns in some overseas capitals, but Japan’s outer space ambitions are not new. Neither do the announcements imply that the country is about to enter the space race heating up between the United States, China, and Russia. Japan is still legally restricted when it comes to space activities and capabilities.

Based on Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, a 1969 parliamentary resolution states that Japanese use of outer space should be only for “peaceful purposes.” This meant that space activities could be conducted only by the civilian sector and for the development of civilian technologies.

In 1998, after North Korea launched its Taepodong-1 missile over Japanese airspace, Japan started an Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) program to monitor Pyongyang. The Japanese government denied violating the 1969 resolution, asserting that multifunction IGSs were dedicated to supporting the exclusively defensive duties of the SDF. The term “peaceful purposes” gradually reinterpreted from its original meaning of “non-military” to “non-offensive.”

In the mid-2000s—as the Six-Party Talks on North Korean nuclear weapons between the United States, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, and Russia stalled—the Japanese government sought a legal revision. In 2008, the parliament approved a new law that permitted space activities “to increase the national security of Japan.” This opened the door to the development of early warning and military grade intelligence satellites. But the use of space is still only permitted today through non-offensive means.

Japan currently possesses five radar IGSs, two optical IGSs and plans to develop a constellation of eight satellites of both types plus two relay satellites. Tokyo has also begun deploying military communications satellites. In 2017, Kirameki-2 was put into orbit over the Indian Ocean, Kirameki-1 was launched over the Pacific Ocean in 2018 and Kirameki-3—with a planned orbit over Japan—will be launched this year. Japan is developing its own Global Positioning System (GPS), the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). Four Michibiki satellites are now in orbit and another three are scheduled to be launched by fiscal year 2023.

The objective of Japan’s space strategy is to ensure it maintains in all circumstances the ability to use space-based assets for the combined operations of the SDF. This will tackle the threat posed by anti-satellite (ASATs) weapons and space debris. According to a 2019 report by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the main dangers are Chinese and Russian ASATs, including ground- and aircraft-launched ballistic missiles, “killer satellites,” laser weapons, and jammers.

Defending satellites is the primary mission of Japan’s new space unit. The National Defense Program Guidelines released in December 2018 suggest its role is to conduct “persistent monitoring of situations in space, and to ensure superiority in use of space at all stages from peacetime to armed contingencies.” The Space Domain Mission Unit, to be based at Fuchu Air Base near Tokyo and initially staffed with about 20 personnel, will become fully operational in 2022.

It will cooperate with US Space Command, established by US President Donald Trump last year.

Protecting Japanese satellites requires an in-depth monitoring of space, thus Space Situational Awareness (SSA) space-based optical telescopes and ground-based laser ranging devices will also be deployed. Japan’s SSA capabilities are expected to be connected to US forces in two years. Another dimension of US-Japan cooperation is related to QZSS, as the system is compatible with the US GPS and explicitly dedicated to complementing it in the Asia Pacific.

Japan’s space strategy is almost purely defensive in the sense that it aims to protect against the elimination of space-based assets, which would blind and paralyze the SDF and leave the country vulnerable. Due to legal, political, and budget constraints, Japan is not militarizing outer space beyond what is necessary to guarantee the proper functioning of the SDF. In other words, Japan is not on the verge of playing a remake of Star Wars.

But this does not mean that Japan’s space program has no offensive dimension. First, one of its stated goals is to build “the capability to disrupt C4I (command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence) of opponents in collaboration with the electromagnetic domain.” The future development of Japan’s own ASATs cannot be ruled out. This would certainly trigger domestic debates over their constitutionality as ASATs could arguably violate the non-offensive principle.

Second, Japan’s space-based information gathering and positioning capabilities are key to allowing the SDF to strike targets with precision, for example using the Joint Strike Missile or Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. It is no secret that some in Japan are seeking the capacity to destroy North Korean missile launch pads and vehicles. And to strike, one must first see.

Lionel Fatton is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University, Geneva. He is also a Research Collaborator at the Research Institute for the History of Global Arms Transfer, Meiji University, Tokyo, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #7 – A better regional defense posture for the US and its allies

Pacnet image.jpg

The waning of the US’ longstanding military and technological superiority against a nuclear-armed adversary magnifies the importance of the US alliance network, making it more crucial to deterring and defeating regional challengers in a conflict. Potential adversaries, including China and Russia, seek to weaken the US alliance architecture to limit its freedom of operations and access to the region.

Nuclear-armed adversaries’ use of advanced anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities and gray-zone tactics—employing unconventional tools for coercive and disruptive measures to change the status quo but stopping short of provoking outright interstate military warfare—is of particular concern. To overcome those challenges, the US will need as many options as possible, as well as help from its allies to tailor its regional deterrence architecture to check near-peer competitors and rogue states, and show that the US and its allies can act decisively if deterrence fails.

There are, however, issues the US and allies must resolve to maintain and strengthen regional tailored deterrence architecture. The first is a threat perception gap between the US and its allies in Asia. Even when the gap is narrow, there seems to be a difference in how to respond to regional challengers.

The Taiwan Strait is the most dangerous hot spot in Asia, and could set the US and China on a collision course. Southeast Asian countries are on the frontline as they confront China’s actions to make its claims regarding the nine-dash line in the South China Sea fait accompli. Tensions have steadily increased between Japan and China over the Senakau/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea since 2012. Lastly, South Korea is concerned about increasing Chinese military activities in the Yellow Sea, as well as in the East Sea. Regional states are reaching a common understanding that China is using gray-zone tactics to pursue national interests and becoming more assertive as its military capabilities and economic leverage grow.

Nevertheless, there is a perception gap between states experiencing tensions with China and those that have relatively good relations with it. Even among regional states in conflict with China, there is disagreement over whether China is trying to work within the existing international system or will weaponize its economic power and use military force to resolve conflicts and change the status quo.

Another factor precluding a united perception of major security threats is the different relationships countries have with the major regional challenger. While China is not a major energy supplier, as Russia is in Europe, economic interdependence with China complicates national defense strategies. Economic interdependence between China and regional countries is uneven, with the latter relying very much on the former’s huge market. Moreover, Chinese investment in neighboring countries—the Belt and Road Initiative being the most notable example—provides opportunities for economic development and the risk of increasing vulnerability to Chinese influence. The US-built San Francisco system in Asia—marked by a hub-and-spoke network of formal bilateral security alliances and open access to the US market, giving US allies in the region huge security and economic incentives—is not what it used to be. China has become an attractive alternative market and source of development aid, though not as open nor as transparent as the US market and aid.

Maintaining deterrence throughout the full spectrum of a crisis—from gray zone to red zone, where conflicts involve interstate military conflict but lie beneath the nuclear response threshold, and then from the red to black-and-white zone, involving nuclear attacks on the US homeland or an ally—requires the US and its allies to act in unison with a shared understanding of threats and how to manage them. Allied solidarity against a regional challenger throughout a crisis is a key assumption for a Blue theory of victory—a set of approaches that the US and allies should pursue to deter regional adversaries, manage escalation control in crisis and conflict, and safeguard core interests. Differing threat perceptions between the US and its allies—and among its allies—of a nuclear-armed regional challenger will make a Blue victory impossible. US reassurance of its extended deterrence commitment to allies, both conventional and nuclear, will not resolve concerns about entrapment in a military conflict between two great powers.

Reaching consensus on threat perceptions and showing solidarity and resolve in a crisis involves many factors, in the military sphere as well as across political, economic, and social areas. Obtaining critical information in a timely manner and guaranteeing its authenticity through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations is crucial in developing a common threat perception. Better and wider information gathering and sharing coverage will allow the US and allies to better understand the security environment and a crisis. Obtaining and sharing critical information earlier in a conflict, perhaps even before it escalates from gray zone to red zone, will help the US and allies to establish a common understanding of the regional threat faster, enabling earlier warnings and more time to prepare a response.

Such readiness will make it harder for a regional challenger to establish a fait accompli and carry out surprise armed provocations. While the US possesses state-of-the-art ISR capabilities, it should help allies and partners develop more advanced ISR capabilities of their own to deter and, if necessary, prevail over regional challengers before and during a crisis. The US already has a dense information sharing network in the region, including the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, plus partners like South Korea and Japan that possess capable ISR assets and plan to acquire more advanced capabilities. Nevertheless, more should be done to strengthen partner ISR capabilities and information sharing, allowing information from diverse sources to be cross-checked by allies and partners, thus increasing confidence in shared intelligence and narrowing the threat perception gap.

Bolstering conventional military capabilities, especially related to denial strategies, should also be emphasized for future collaboration between the US and allies. The Trump administration seems to look at blunter approaches and renewing focus on its nuclear capabilities for deterrence purposes. But nuclear capabilities are no panacea for escalation control; finding ways to reinforce its conventional superiority together with regional allies and partners would provide better, wider, and more practical options to manage escalation and respond to provocations. Since strategic competition between the US and China is different from that of the US-Soviet fight during the Cold War, allied conventional capabilities in Asia should focus on supporting denial strategies and tactics rather than aiming to obtain superior counterforce capabilities that could result in misperception and miscalculation by the Chinese leadership. These could include an advanced allied counter-missile strategy, maritime-denial strategy, anti-submarine warfare tactics, and enhanced force mobility concepts that would impose higher costs on potential challengers while preserving allied forces. Investing in conventional denial capabilities with greater interoperability will not only improve tailored deterrence architecture in Asia but also buy time for the US and partners to share crucial information and choose appropriate countermeasures helping to contain a crisis.

The US 2018 National Defense Strategy stressed the importance of strengthening its alliance network, which helps the US against regional adversaries by improving understanding of the theater security environment and broadening options and tools. While allies will look to the US to maintain and enhance its tailored extended deterrence architecture and ensure that it has escalation control over potential adversaries, allies and partners will be asked for more burden-sharing and increased levels of interoperability, as the US cannot bear increasing costs alone at a time of economic slowdown and fiscal austerity. To prevail over nuclear-armed adversaries, the US and its allies and partners should use limited resources wisely, investing more in allied ISR and conventional denial capabilities to narrow the threat perception gap among partners and increase the costs regional challengers have to bear for their provocations.

Gibum Kim ( is an associate research fellow at the Center for Security and Strategy of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription