Sea Denial Over Recto Bank Using Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles

A Brahmos Mobile Missile Launcher with 3 missiles. Photo courtesy of Anirvan Shukla thru Wikipedia Commons.
A Brahmos Mobile Missile Launcher with 3 missiles. Photo courtesy of Anirvan Shukla thru Wikipedia Commons.

I discussed in my previous blog1 what I think are our prospects of establishing “Sea Control” against the Chinese Armada in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), which, painful as it may seem, seems basically (to quote Muhammad Ali) “Slim and None” as of now. Which brings us to the next naval strategic concept available, SEA DENIAL. Unlike Sea Control, Sea Denial is more achievable for us because instead of establishing a presence in an area, protecting it and keeping our opponents out of that area, the goal of Sea Denial is much simpler: It only aims to keep our opponent OUT of that area.2

Of course it means we won’t be able to use that same area for our own purposes, like for example put mining assets at Recto Bank, etc., it’s just that our opponent won’t be able to do the same also. Think of it as like a “Mexican Standoff”, or a DRAW where they or we will not be able to do anything on the contested area.

The Philippines has a couple of claims in the Spratly Islands, but I will just focus on Recto Bank (also called “Reed Bank” or “Reed Tablemount“) for a number of reasons. First is because Recto Bank is estimated to hold up to 49% or 5.4 Billion of the 11 Billion Barrels of oil in the entire Spratly Islands,3 probably the single largest concentration of oil in the area. Second is that the Philippines holds the position that since no part of Recto Bank is above the water, then it is part of the continental shelf of Palawan and thus the Philippines has exclusive rights to it.4 Hence it looks like if we are going to make a “last stand” of protecting a territory in the Spratlys, it will likely be at Recto Bank.

‘Missile Blanket by Land’
One way of establishing Sea Denial would be thru the use of a “Missile Blanket” over the area we want to keep our enemy away from. This means employing missiles against assets that our enemy can deploy into that area, particularly Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM), and hopefully this will DETER them from establishing any presence there. There are a couple of platforms we can use to launch our missiles from, and one of them is a LAND-BASED PLATFORM.

Land-based AShMs are ideal because the platforms used for them like large trailer trucks are simpler than comparable platforms like ships or aircraft, and therefore more cost-effective and simpler to maintain. They also have the advantage of being able to HIDE behind whatever available cover there might be around them, like trees, buildings, mountains, hills, etc. They can also be CAMOUFLAGED to blend in with their background and therefore be more difficult to spot and neutralize.

These missiles don’t have to be launched from near the shore, as long as they have the range to reach the target from where they are and have datalink capability, they theoretically can be launched from anywhere on land. Aircraft could be used to relay initial target information to the missiles thru datalink, and could be used also to provide updates of a moving target’s latest position to the missiles via the same datalink as it does take time for the missiles to reach their targets.

‘Mass Saturation Attacks’
I am a firm believer in using “Mass Saturation Attacks” against ships, meaning the use of a couple of missiles against a single target to overwhelm its defenses, I think it is now even more important due to the countermeasures and defenses that can be employed against missiles these days. This is also the favored tactic intended to use by the Soviets against the American Carrier fleets, which is why they specialized and mass-produced AShMs. To this day, the Russians arguably still have the BEST AShMs in the world, certainly the fastest and the longest ranged.

As to how many missiles are needed, let’s assume that we will need three missiles to neutralize a single Chinese naval surface vessel, and with China’s West Philippine Sea (WPS) Fleet having approximately 62 such vessels, we will need around 186 missiles. Assuming that a mobile launcher can carry three missiles each, then we will need around 62 of such land-based mobile launchers for our missiles.

‘Distance and Missile Range’
A big problem with using land-based AShMs is the issue of DISTANCE and MISSILE RANGE. Recto Bank is approximately 300 km from Palawan, and this is just the distance measured perpendicularly from its far point to the nearest landfall in Palawan. In reality, this distance will need to be further out to:
– Cover all of the areas of the bank;
– Allow our missiles to be stationed further inland along the entire area of Palawan, giving them more area to hide around and launch their missiles from.

Hence to cover the entire Recto Bank from Palawan, we will need a missile with a range of around 400 km. The problem is that there aren’t many AShMs with this type of range available from western countries, most have ranges of only below 200 km. In fact, as of now there is only ONE western missile with such range, and that is the Brahmos. China has very long range AShMs, but for obvious reasons we won’t be getting any from them. Russia also has these types of missiles, but with them being very close politically to China, there will be a lot of complications if we acquire their missiles. Even the Brahmos could be a risk to us as it is a joint venture with Russia by India.

On a side note: There seems to be some confusion about the Brahmos’ range, officially it is “only” 290 km supposedly due to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulations, but a closer look at the rule and actual practice shows that the Brahmos SHOULD be exempted from the MTCR regulations as its warhead is below 500 kg (only 200 kg). In fact, land-attack Cruise Missiles like the Taurus KEPD,5 and AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM)6 have ranges of well beyond 300 km but have been exported to many countries as their warheads are below 500 kg.7 Even the Brahmos’ manufacturer and main designer seems to be confused about the MTCR regulations as they ended up giving conflicting statements about it.8 9In reality, though, the Brahmos’ actual range is closer to 500 km,10 which would be way more than enough for our purposes.

Approximate distances from Palawan to the edges of the Recto Bank. Original photo before editing courtesy of Roel Balingit thru Wikipedia Commons.
Approximate distances from Palawan to the edges of the Recto Bank. Original photo before editing courtesy of Roel Balingit thru Wikipedia Commons.

‘Targeting and Identification’
Another main issue about these AShMs are TARGETING and IDENTIFICATION. Even if we can get the Brahmos with its 500 km range, we will still need to overcome the Horizon Problem11 to effectively track and identify targets at such long ranges. This is usually done by SURVEILLANCE AIRCRAFT with surface search radars, and most such radars have ranges of around 360 km at most for the largest targets. For smaller targets, the aircraft will have to move in closer to detect and track it, and even closer still to be able to identify effectively the ship using other sensors. This puts them in danger of long-range enemy Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and aircraft.

This is arguably the weakest link in the entire land-based system, without an effective way to track and identify targets Over-The-Horizon (OTH), then our missiles will not be able to do their job. In fact, China doesn’t even have to physically destroy the missiles, all they have to do is neutralize its “Eyes and Ears”, and if they CAN do that, then our missiles will be rendered ineffective.

Using jet-powered instead of propeller-driven propulsion will improve the survivability of these Surveillance aircraft owing to their ability to get in and out of an area faster due to their higher speeds. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) I feel will also be more survivable because of their smaller size, making them more difficult to detect by radar at longer ranges. And we will need to have enough of these aircraft/UAVs to allow for “Combat Attrition” and still maintain that ability to spot targets at Recto Bank. Not sure what is a good number for this one, but the more the merrier, so to speak, so probably at least a dozen if I were to speculate.

‘Availability Issue’
Since there is only currently a single source for an AShM that fits our needs, then the issue of AVAILABILITY crops up. Philippine and Indian relations have not really been that great, there has always been tensions between the overseas workers of both countries of which I personally have had a first-hand experience with, and which I intend to blog about at a later time. China can also take actions to force India to keep away the sale of these missiles to us. For example, there are SPECULATIONS that China could use the issue of PAKISTAN as a LEVERAGE to keep India from selling the Brahmos to Vietnam.12 India has a decades-long Cold War with Pakistan, and China could use the threat of selling/transfering more weapons and/or weapons technology to Pakistan against India to prevent the sale of the missiles. If they could do that to Vietnam, they could well do it to us also.

‘Threat to Palawan’
If China cannot neutralize our long-range sensors over Recto Bank, then it will only speed up the decision on their part to attack and possibly even invade Palawan. China will not let us just take leisurely pot shots against their ships, they will try to neutralize the threat, and if the threat is in Palawan, that is where they will go. To try to destroy our Land-based AShMs, China could use a combination of Surveillance and Attack aircraft as “Hunter-Killer” teams to hunt them down, much in the same way the US hunted down mobile Scud missile launchers during the Iraqi Wars. Investing in long-range mobile SAM launchers on our part will help minimize this threat, they don’t have to be necessarily paired with the AShM launchers, they can be stationed separately and it will still be enough to harass or deter enemy aircraft from getting too close.

Another way the Chinese could attempt to neutralize our AShMs would be to insert Special Forces commando teams via Submarines to locate them and relay their positions to aircraft and/or Submarines which can then use Cruise Missiles to destroy the AShMs. This will keep our own Special Forces teams busy countering their Chinese counterparts, who will be worthy opponents, indeed.

Or the Chinese could just launch an actual invasion of Palawan, taking it would be the best way to keep their assets at Recto Bank “safe” from a strong attack. Putting all these offensive military equipment on Palawan that could be used in a MAIN attack could also result in a “Militarization” of the island, which could result in the dampening of the local economic climate there due to the threat of attack from China, and local industries like Tourism could be affected.

‘Parting Shot’
To summarize, the Pros and Cons of a Land-based Missile System are:
– Likely to be more cost-effective in terms of Acquisition, Operation and Maintenance due to its simpler platform;
– Will be more survivable due its ability to hide behind and blend in with its surroundings, even more so if coupled with a SAM Umbrella
– Its weakest link is its entire dependency on aircraft for OTH targeting, without which it won’t be able to do its main job of hitting targets at Recto Bank;
– Will increase the risk of attack and/or invasion of Palawan;
– Militarization of Palawan could dampen its local economy;
– Its single-source availability has too many complications

In theory, the use of land-based AShMs for Sea Denial over Recto Bank could be feasible, and it actually has a couple of advantages going for it compared to other AShM platforms, like it being simpler and more cost-effective and also it being not as easy to neutralize. However, in reality there are a number of issues working against it. There is only a single source to a country we only have lukewarm relations with at best, and the missile is made in joint-venture with a country with close political relations to China. On top of that, we need to be able to ensure a targeting and identification system that will survive attack by the enemy.

Improving the availability will remove some of these issues, like if the manufacturer of the Taurus KEPD 350 (500 km range) could be persuaded to make an Anti-Ship version of their missile, for example, or if other manufacturers can come up with a 400 km range AShM soon. There is another option in the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)13 (1,000 km range) that the US is currently developing, but it won’t be ready until 2018, and that is assuming that there will be no delays in its development.

Personally, I think there are just too many complications right now involving the use of land-based AShMs to protect Recto Bank, the most critical I feel is the issue of availability. If the LRASM becomes available in a couple of years, then the concept perhaps could be more feasible.

A Hermes 900 Maritime Patrol UAV. Photo courtesy of Matthieu Sontag thru Wikipedia Commons.
A Hermes 900 Maritime Patrol UAV. Photo courtesy of Matthieu Sontag thru Wikipedia Commons.


  2. Sea Control and Sea Denial: Controlling of the seas today, (
  3. Reed Bank ‘holds huge oil, gas reserves’,
  4. PH protests Chinese incursion in Recto Bank,
  5. TAURUS KEPD 350 – High precision stand-off, (
  6. AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), United States of America, (
  7. Strategic Myopia: The United State, Cruise Missiles and the Missile Technology Control Regime, (
  8. India, Russia to develop new hypersonic cruise missile, (
  9. BrahMos Cruise Missile Not Bound By MTCR, Range Can Be Extended Beyond 300 kilometres,
  10. India Modifies Brahmos Missile With New Nav System, (
  12. India to train Vietnamese pilots to fly Sukhoi fighters, (
  13. LRASM: Long Range Maritime Strike for Air-Sea Battle, (

195 thoughts on “Sea Denial Over Recto Bank Using Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles”

  1. whether or not the j-11s, su-27s, su-30mkks have aerial refueling capability or not, it still remains that China can easily project aerial dominance once they are able to complete airfields at the KIG and they can position their carriers. whereas, we on the other hand, still have nil assets to even limit chinese incursions in our eez skies. IMHO, the chinese jets need not loiter in the air for a long period of time, that’s the mission of the AEW. the jets can be easily scrambled if they already position themselves in the middle of the KIG. so there, technically, the aerial refueling argument wouldn’t even matter.

    1. The response time will be the issue. It depends on how far the area to be responded to is, if its at 300 km, even if you blaze in at Mach 2 or 2,400 kph, it will still take you 7.5 minutes to reach there, not counting time for take off, climb and acceleration. Also, going at full speed means depleting quickly your fuel tanks, meaning less time for combat.

      In 7.5 minutes, an attacking air armada could be gone already, hence if you want full time protection, you will need aircraft on Combat Air Patrol.

      In terms of air defense, I think an AAW Frigate supported by long duration Surveillance aircraft is better, it can stay for longer periods and are therefore much more efficient …

  2. The refuelling probe is easy to spot externally. The left-hand side of all those Su-30MKKs shows a shallow recess just in front of the cockpit. The chromed nozzle is the probe in stowed position. Here’s a close-up of an Indian Su-30MKI.

  3. Spratly I. is around 1,095.33 km away from Hainan and 300 km from Palawan. A Palawan-based FA-50 flying at Mach 1 (1,234.8o km/h) can strike a Chinese naval target or Chinese-occupied reef in Spratly I. within 14.57 minutes while a Hainan-based J-11/SU-27/SU-30 will take 53.22 minutes (at Mach 1) to arrive at Spratly I which by that time our strike fighters have already returned back to Palawan. With this distance advantage, we need air power to be able to deny China the ability to occupy and control our reefs and shoals.

  4. As of this time….distance is the problem for chinese air force planes,but sooner or later it would be not a problem in the future,remember,the chinese are enlarging some of the islands on KIG at Philippines ‘s sea,when its done,those islands are capable servicing /mooring the chinese coast guard ships and they could implements and enforce continous patrol on those areas thereby streghtening their claim of sovereighty of our philippines sea,as well as better surveilance on our assets at palawan.

    1. The danger will come from their carrier/s. Theoretically, they can station one within 100 km from the area they want to protect, like Recto Bank, for example. They don’t even need to have Combat Air Patrols, their aircraft can stay on the carriers with only a long endurance Surveillance aircraft hovering overhead because as soon as those carrier aircraft takes off, anything within 100 km will already be within the range of their long-range air to air missiles …

  5. Order na kasi tayo ng submarine e. At least one. Kahit yung collins class ng australia. Kahit maingay siya basta panakot lang. When the carrier becomes fully operational wala na reed bank natn.

  6. Iisa lang ang carrier ng China and even if China is able to complete a sea port and airbase at Mischief or Mabini Reefs, it will be very easy to disable the carrier and decimate anything on the small reefs. Bec. of our distance advantage, we just need 3 stealth F-22 Raptors augmented by 6 FA-50s and 2 batteries of 500-km range shore-based Brahmos AShM & SAM missiles, I think they are sufficient to discourage China from ever stationing it’s carrier near Spratly Islands or putting up an airbase on the reefs if the dispute escalates into a conflict.

  7. Just one or 2 good hits at the carrier deck will make it’s SU fighters useless and helpless from either taking-off or landing.

  8. On sea denial over Recto Bank. The Phils needs to acquire a mix of long ranged, land-based anti-ship cruise missile (AShCM) like Brahmos and a ship-based medium ranged AShCM like the MM40 Exocet Block III and the Phil. should acquire it fast.
    If there are emergency funds for natural calamity and disasters, There should be an emergency funds allocated for any catastrophy, natural and man-made. Losing Recto Bank to any foreign forces is tantamount to any natural disaster. The’t. should be able to execise its powers to prevent any eventuality like this. The Chinese intrusions to Recto Bank presents “a clear and present danger to the Philippine Sovereignty,” as J. Roilo-Golez puts it.
    Mahusay ang Pinoy sa pag-papaubra sa mga gamit. Bakit di natin gamitin ang katangiang ito ng Pinoy. Paubrahin natin na maarmahan ng misel ang bapor nating pampatruya ng karagatan.
    Many will say that the gov’t should prioritize food production and education instead of modernization. Hay nakupo, ano ba ang nakain nila?
    We don’t need to wait until the new frigates contract are awarded. Its already long overdued. We need to act now for 2moro we may lose not just Recto Bank but the whole KIG. Pinoy Gising! wag puro gilas.

    1. Education has always been the number 1 priority of most, if not all Administrations. As for Defense, I think it can use a little more especially since the US won’t be helping us in the Spratlys issue …

  9. “Johnson Reef lies about 263 nautical miles away from Puerto Princesa, Palawan and 190 nautical miles from the tip of Balabac, Palawan.

    Earlier reports claimed that China is constructing an airfield between 300 to 500 meters in length for use of its aircraft.”

    “Should China build a major base on Mischief Reef, which as General Zhang suggests, should be able to handle PLA Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 multirole fighters, it would require an airstrip of about 1,000 meters.

    With a 2,000m airstrip Mischief Reef could medium size transport aircraft or larger maritime patrol aircraft.

    While the take-off distance for the Su-27SK is up to 800m, with a landing run of 620m, extra space would be required to allow for a margin of safety.”

    Obviously they’ll need a bigger runway to host strike aircraft with a reasonable payload.

    In the first place they can’t launch attacks from a runway in the middle of the Kalayaan ISLAND GROUP without first seizing control of every island in MANPADS or artillery range. Otherwise their Flankers will be easy targets for anyone with a Stinger or Mistral especially in the process of taking-off or landing. Which a noisy jet can’t do without alerting every Filipino, Vietnamese, or Taiwanese garrison in the area.

    We need MRFs. We need a balanced force not just shortcuts.

  10. Nasaan na frigates natin? We should be realistic. Weapons are not cheap and those arms dealer countries dont always want to share tech let alone be dragged into our conflict. We should go neutral country arms purchases as much as possible. Smaller countries with very active defense industries should be considered. We should look to them as well.
    So far i have not been hearing of any new purchases. Is this the end of our modernization? Tapos na ba?

  11. i think it will be a long process in getting the 2 brand new frigates. The pre-bid conference is scheduled October 11, 2014.

    now, after october 11 the next question when will be the official announcement of the winner. another question mark.

    accordingly in the contract if signed, the requirement the frigates will be delivered within 1,460 calendar days or approximately 4 years. the catch here we have to count the number of days upon the opening letter of credit. so from the signing of the contract we have to wait of the letter of credit before we start counting and we dont have the definite schedules of each process.

    what if the new administration comes in and contract is not yet signed.

    we should have pursued in re-arming the del pilars with missiles and ASW while waiting for these so long process of acquiring the new frigates.

    1. Try a more diplomatic approach, franmar. I do allow people to post here their opinions as long as it doesn’t result in friction between the posters. This is a democracy, and like it or not everybody gets to share their thoughts as much as possible …

  12. Like all afp acqusitions this will take a while. Drawing drawing muna. I think except for the fa50s all navy big ticket items are a minimum of 4 to 5 years depending sa topak ng mga taga senado at congreso. Meanwhile i hope jokowi of indonesia will also see the other side of the chinese…kahit yung fishermen lang nila. I give up on the malaysians. Nasa harap na nga nila hindi pa rin nila nakikita. Frigate news please…… Btw, when will our 2 ssvs be completed? Are they armed?

  13. thanks for that rhk111 for so diplomatic of your approach in this blog. well, in the articles mentioned of the del pilars system upgrade (missile, asw and sensors) is still understudy. is not yet a definite agenda when to act on the project. there is still a lot of consideration, such as if the 2 new missile frigates will arrived, is it feasible to upgrade the hamiltons or just maintain its weapon system and the multi purpose helicopters already assigned to it.

    i like kim205c0…he is so blatant “SHOW THE MONEY”. after all is not only about talks. no money…no weapons. before talking the budgets or funds should be ready. if research is properly made it should first look into the budget of the AFP if we can fast track our modernization. but it does not fit in the real situation. the weaponry such us shore base missile system, the MRFs. submarines and etc. we have to wait for a long time before we can get the 2 brand new missile frigates. the fa-50 alone we bleed for its budget and will take us 3 years staggered deliveries.

  14. Vietnam has already learned a lesson from its skirmishes with China at Paracel Islands. Now, they are accelerating their defense activties & weapons procurements as fast as they are able to (Radar Systems, 5 submarines, warship building, high-speed landing crafts, 4 Gunships, Brahmos missiles, weapons up-grading, self-propelled artillery guns, 6 patrol ships, 3 C-295 Transports, 2 Missile ships, 2 DN-2000 Class OPVs, Sea Planes, UAVs, etc) and is forecasted to spend $4,7 Billion (2.8% of GDP) for their 2015 Defense budget while our gov’t.will spend only $2.6 Billion (0.8% of our GDP) for our 2015 Defense budget. Maybe we need more forceful intimidation and bullying from China so it will knock the sense of Pnoy Administration & next president to quadruple our defense budget for the next 6 years.

  15. Vietnam can even devote more to its defense budget if it wanted to because they are communists. And we know that their government pretty much is unopposed. Ours on the other hand isnt. We have politicians that are oblivious to china and insist that china is welcome to rape the spratlys since we can do nothing about it. They claim being nationalistic but in the face of a bigger aggressor they are pretty much cowards. All talk. The most of which are the leftists who do not know that a rotten brp sierra madre is the only thing that prevents the chinese from completely overrunning our claims. Btw, aside from the 2 frigates and the hamilton upgrade i understand the ssvs under contract from ptpal are being constructed already. Will we get both sabay or one by one? No weapons?

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