January 23, 2024
MANILA – One of the vessels used by the Philippine Navy for its resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea suffered “technical difficulty” during the weekend, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said on Monday.
AFP spokesperson Col. Francel Padilla was referring to the Unaizah May (UM) 1, one of the wooden-hulled boats often used during resupply missions for the Navy’s outpost in Ayungin.
She did not elaborate on the damage, but said this prompted them to call off the mission using UM1 and reschedule it “until such time that we determine that the vessel to be used is seaworthy.”
However, it might not exactly be a failed resupply operation.
On Sunday, leaked photos of the military’s supposed successful airdrop mission at the BRP Sierra Madre using a Philippine Navy Islander maritime patrol aircraft were posted on X (formerly Twitter) by an unofficial account @ALT_wps created in December 2023.
“Mission accomplished: Photos of the airdrop of supplies in Ayungin Shoal to BRP Sierra Madre today January 21 2024 highlights the #Philippine government’s unwavering commitment to supporting its personnel guarding the country’s maritime territory. #RightIsMight,” the caption of the post read. The post was immediately taken down.
One of the photos showed a crew member of the plane dropping the supplies out the door into the water. Another photo captured one of the troops at the Sierra Madre trying to retrieve the supplies.
Previous posts of the X account included news clips on Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea and show of support for the Philippines’ assertion of its sovereignty claims and its partnership with allies such as the United States.
Padilla would not confirm the authenticity of the post nor outrightly deny the paradrop mission.
“As to the possibility of airdropping supplies, it is indeed part of the operational mix as we consider all options. This is often used for emergencies and short notice. We cannot comment on the operational details,” she told the Inquirer.
The Navy has carried out air missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in the past. This operation, however, only allows them to carry limited supplies and restricts them to rotate troops stationed at the outpost.
The resupply mission for January has been pushed back at least twice due to bad weather.
The Navy has been using a pair of 24-meter wooden-hulled boats for its resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, the UM1 and UM2. The UM2, however, had to undergo repair when it was damaged during a collision with a China Coast Guard ship during a supply run in October.
It was subsequently replaced by ML Kalayaan, a rescue boat owned by the municipality of Kalayaan, but it also had to undergo repair after a water cannon attack by the Chinese coast guard in December.
Chinese ships have been harassing resupply vessels to the BRP Sierra Madre, the grounded warship that serves as a military outpost in Ayungin, the center of tensions between the Philippines and China.
Beijing insists that the warship’s presence in Ayungin is illegal and violates Chinese sovereignty. A 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague rejected these claims, but China refuses to acknowledge the decision.
Ayungin is a low-tide elevation about 194 kilometers off Palawan province. It is about 37 km northwest of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef also within the country’s exclusive economic zone, which was seized by China in 1995 and since transformed into a massive military outpost capable of launching missiles.
The December resupply mission saw as many as 46 Chinese vessels in the vicinity of the shoal to intimidate the Philippine boats, “the largest number of maritime forces that we have documented so far in the previous months,” according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. also joined the December resupply mission himself, the first military head to make such a trip to the outpost. He was accompanied by Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos.
“It was enraging. You can really feel the tensions,” he told the Inquirer then, as he described what he had witnessed.