Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I guess it’s safe to say Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice won’t be stepping aboard the bridge in the foreseeable future, unless of course he was being forced to walk the plank.

He was the skipper of the USS Guardian, a sophisticated mine-hunter that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last Jan. 17, allegedly a victim of faulty satellite-produced maps.

She’s been stuck there ever since, her fiberglass-reinforced wooden hull punctured by the razor-like corals and taking in water; a bogey for conservationists and militants in Manila and worse – at least for the US – an embarrassment for what is arguably the most advanced navy in the world.

I can almost see the grimace from my navy friends when they see the report on ABC News today that the US Navy will cut her up so she can be removed from the reef, a marine sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My navy friends – still pining for the days when the Philippines rode high across our seas – can only forlornly look as the 23-year-old Avenger-class minesweeper (a virtual infant by Philippine Navy standards) is destined for the scrapyard.

US 7th Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James was quoted by ABC News that cutting the ship into pieces was the only way to get it out without further hurting the reef – which experts say has already suffered significant damage. Two heavy-lift ships will take about a month to extricate the stricken Guardian.

On the one hand, this is testament to America’s fealty to the environment. “I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to Tubbataha Reef,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, “We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment.”

But according to the US Navy’s own assessment, the ship was so badly damaged that forcibly tugging it from her coral perch might have broken her up anyway.

How can the Guardian’s master, with all the electronics aboard – including presumably the latest sonar technology which is the bread-and-butter of any anti-mine warfare vessel – have gotten it so wrong?

At the peak of the Philippine Navy in the 1960s and 1970s, my navy friends told me that they frequently bested their US Navy counterparts during “war games” held in waters that China now insists is theirs and theirs alone.

Filipinos, they boasted, have sharper seamanship skills. I’m not sure if our Malayo-Polynesian DNA had anything to do with it; but chatting with former Navy chief Vice Adm. Alex Pama in Falls Church last year, I got the impression that these skills – more than anything else – is what they wanted to recapture as they modernize.

Poor seamanship could have led the Guardian to sail too close to Tubbataha Reef, with its breathtaking atolls, coral walls and migratory marine life, perhaps like the moth lured by the flame.

Experts say about a thousand square meters of the sanctuary has been damaged by the Guardian, although that is largely a “guesstimate” at least until the Guardian can be extricated. The US will be fined P25,000 (about $6,100) for each square meter of affected coral plus P300,000 (about $80,000) for trespassing on the marine sanctuary. Under Philippine laws, destruction of the reefs also carried a prison term of 3 to 6 years but the government agreed not to invoke that proviso.

The incident is a litmus test for the two longtime allies, especially as the US executes the pivot to Asia. In an exercise of cost-benefit analysis, what is the price of the America’s mantle of security for countries like the Philippines that stand vulnerable to China’s bullying on her western frontier – the South China Sea?  

It may just be a case of a ship stuck on precious real estate but the Guardian mishap has revealed the delicate dance the Philippines must do to keep its seas.

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