Sulu Sea Maritime Security Developments
Philippine forces team with U.S. PACOM’s Joint Interagency Task Force West
Joint Interagency Task Force West Public Affairs
The tri-border region of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines hosts some of the world’s most important shipping lanes as well as unparalleled ecological wonders. The region contains the Sulu archipelago, a chain of islands in the southwestern Philippines famous for its abundant marine life and natural beauty. Some of Southeast Asia’s most pristine beaches and coral reefs can be found in this extremely biodiverse area including the Tubbataha Reefs National Park, which covers more than 130,000 hectares and probably contains more species of coral, fish and other marine animals than any comparable area in the world.
The ecological and cultural significance of this region is matched by its strategic significance as a gateway between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Farther south, the Malacca Strait is one of the world’s busiest waterways and the shortest sea route for oil between the Persian Gulf and Asia. The Malacca Strait is the world’s second-largest choke point for the transit of oil, with more than 15 million barrels transiting through every day (compared to the Strait of Hormuz with 17 million barrels per day), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. When a tanker exceeds the maximum depth of the Malacca Strait, the alternative is to detour south through the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, Sibutu Passage or Mindoro Strait, all of which lie within the tri-border area.
Despite an abundance of natural resources, the region faces significant challenges to governance and prosperity. Substantial cultural differences across ethnic groups in the region contribute to tensions spilling over into violence. The area has developed a well-earned reputation for lawlessness and violence due in part to economic challenges, a growing population and pressures on natural resources caused by illegal fishing and poaching from outsiders.
Illicit trafficking of all kinds is highly prevalent throughout the region. Trafficking of contraband goods, narcotics, weapons and even people helps fuel instability.
The number of piracy and robbery acts against ships reported to the International Maritime Organization in the Malacca Strait and Singapore had the highest number of incidents reported in 2015 with 134 out of the 303 reported, followed by the South China Sea with 81, according to Review of Maritime Transport 2016, a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
The rugged terrain of the islands in the shared waters of Indonesia and Malaysia off the island of Borneo enables terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to train, sustain and grow in relative safety. The autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao in the Sulu Sea is home to other militant groups including the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. By taking advantage of the region’s porous borders, these groups have been able to train, sustain and operate with relative impunity throughout the region.
Militant and criminal activity has created an everyday reality of kidnapping for ransom, piracy and terrorist attacks, directly affecting the day-to-day lives of the people of the region. The result is an increased disruption of legitimate fishing and trade that is prompting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to all consider new ways to collaborate on security concerns.
Within Philippines territory, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been heavily engaged in combating these internal security threats for a number of years. U.S. support has helped the AFP make a significant impact in stabilizing the region, so much so that the Philippine government is now well-established in an effort to transition to primarily a civilian law enforcement led security effort. The United States is supporting this transition through a variety of efforts, helping the Philippines to normalize security and governance throughout the region. This effort has not been without risks and challenges. In January 2015, 44 Philippine Special Action Force police officers tragically lost their lives in the pursuit of a high-value terrorist target on the island of Mindanao.
To help the Philippine government develop a civilian law enforcement group that is capable and prepared for the challenges of the southern region, the U.S. Pacific Command’s counterdrug task force, Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF West), began providing training and infrastructure support to the Philippine National Police’s (PNP’s) counterdrug efforts.
Beginning in 2007, JIATF West, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice International Criminal Investigative Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP), began working with the Philippine National Police Maritime Group (PNP-MG) to establish a Special Boat Unit to operate and provide law enforcement services throughout the Sulu Sea.
To support the unit, JIATF West built boat maintenance and operations facilities while ICITAP, using funding provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), oversaw the construction and delivery of six state-of-the-art patrol craft. In addition to investing in infrastructure, JIATF West also provided yearly training in maritime law enforcement, operations and small craft maintenance.
The training provided by JIATF West alternated between counterdrug and maritime law enforcement skills, leveraging the expertise of U.S. personnel to provide advanced training and, more important, to develop PNP officers as instructors to support their own long-term training requirements.
The PNP Maritime Group Special Boat Unit was renamed in 2014 to what is today the Maritime Special Operations Unit (MSOU). It is leading the way in law enforcement capability with over 250 officers patrolling a more than 900-kilometer arc of the Sulu Sea.
To date, JIATF West has organized more than 20 counter narcotics and maritime law enforcement training events and helped build seven maritime police outposts and stations in the Sulu Sea region. More than 900 officers of the PNP and the Philippine Coast Guard have expanded their skills through these efforts. The development of PNP officers as instructors for their own training, as well as the JIATF West investment in a Law Enforcement Training Center on Palawan, means the PNP owns its future and can develop its own training programs to sustain the force in the long term.
“This kind of training really improves our interoperability with other agencies involved in the region,” Police Superintendent Osmundo Dupangan Salibo, chief, 2nd Maritime Special Operations Unit, said during a JIATF West Maritime Skills Training event with the MSOU in December 2015. Senior Airman Michael Connors, U.S. Air Force, American Forces Network Pacific, interviewed Salibo, who has been in charge of the MSOU 2nd Unit since December 2012.
To date, the MSOU is credited with more than 400 arrests and 22 criminal vessels seized for forfeiture. They are also credited with the seizure of criminal contraband and assets valued at more than U.S. $2 million. The success of the MSOU goes far beyond thwarting drug smugglers and terrorist groups. The joint training and infrastructure projects have generated numerous ancillary benefits to the environment and people in the region. There have been 298 rescues at sea of people in distress and ongoing disruption of illegal fishing and poaching of sea life.
From 2013 to 2014, the MSOU helped support the PNP-MG with the seizure of endangered wildlife, including the rescue and capture of approximately 900 sea turtles and over 9,000 marine turtle eggs. In 2015, the United Nations Environment Program presented the Asia Environmental Enforcement Award to the PNP-MG, Police Senior Superintendent Jonathan Ablang and Salibo, in the Combating Wildlife Crime category.
The efforts of the Philippine government, with help from JIATF West, ICITAP and INL, to develop this highly skilled MSOU is the result of their commitment to maintain security in the Sulu Sea. According to U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Scudder, former director of operations at JIATF West, “These successes don’t happen overnight. It takes a long-term programmatic commitment. We have had a great relationship with the Philippine government and Philippine National Police Maritime Group that has made this effort possible. JIATF West and the U.S. interagency will continue to work alongside our Philippine law enforcement counterparts to meet the challenges and threats of the future.”
JIATF West is optimistic about the future in the Sulu Sea and hopes to continue to work alongside Philippine law enforcement counterparts to meet the challenges in the region.