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Road to AFP Modernization

Sometime in the late 90s, the Philippine Navy invited a group of journalists to take a week-long cruise in the Visayas. It was their first and largest fleet exercise in decades and we were told it was intended to test readiness for large-scale naval operations at sea. But we suspect it was staged for us so we can tell the world just how badly the Navy needed modern equipment.

Fast forward to the present: we had a lively discussion with Brig. Gen. Cesar Yano, the Philippine defense attaché in Washington DC on prospects for modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) amid the cyclic uptick of tension in the Spratly Islands.

He revealed that they had to pull back a “shopping list” submitted to the Pentagon on orders from Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. so it can be updated to reflect the AFP’s current needs.

Recent events in the disputed Spratly Islands have thrust this concern once more. It comes and goes, rising to the top of Philippine consciousness only to sink to the backburner until the next incident.

There are the almost ritualistic promises of military modernization but the sad fact remains that the AFP is the poor boy of Asia, forced to rely on hand-me-downs, dependent on the benevolence of rich neighbors and unable to do its tasks well because they’re just too much of them.

It hasn’t finished off the communist and secessionist rebellion after over 40 years of continuous warfare, facing off against terrorists, mounting rescues after natural calamities that never seem to end, building roads and school buildings in the remotest reaches of the archipelago and oh, yes, stopping foreign aggressors.

Modernizing the military will take money, lots of it. The AFP needs new ships, new planes, radars, satellite phones, etc. It’s the kind of money that will need some really heavy lifting from taxpayers. And amid the continued prevalence of hunger, disease and poverty in the country, it’s the kind of money that makes us ponder if we can really afford it?

Philippine leaders must decide once and for all what it wants from the AFP: internal security or external defense? Do they want the military to be the jack of all trades (and master of none); don’t they see the inherent (and “modern”) wisdom of clarity of mission and specialization?

Bobbing in the waves aboard one of those US-made fast patrol crafts off the Panay coast, one navy captain lamented that the chief casualty of years of neglect was the loss of the Filipino’s seamanship edge. He recounted how they would beat American sailors in contest after contest on the high seas. That was when they still had ships that could join US warships in “FTX” or fleet training exercises. They are now shunned by most neighboring navies not because they don’t want to join these sea exercises but because their ships are too slow to keep pace with the others.

They’re not too worried about the decay of their ships as they are about the “rust” that’s eroding the knowledge and skills of their sailors. The same could be said of the Philippine Air Force that is in urgent need of more aircraft.

Modernization should begin with the men and women of the AFP, and it’s not purely about new weapons.  Deterrence does not emanate solely from weapons but also from the level of skill, discipline, imagination, courage, attitude, leadership and dedication of people who wield them.

The US invested heavily in the multi-year Philippine Defense Reform (PDR) program that was widely seen as prerequisite for continued American military aid. The PDR aimed to create a new mindset, to curb corruption and imbibe a deeper respect for human rights.

In this light, events like the prosecution of Gens. Carlos Garcia and Jacinto Ligot, the “pabaon” scandal or even the “Morong 43” incident are more the litmus test of the AFP’s readiness than any sea or air confrontation in the South China Sea.

The AFP should be able ventilate not only its needs but more importantly, demonstrate clearly the benefits from military modernization to the people. What bigger benefit for Filipinos than a truly professional, skillful, capable, and disciplined AFP. Thus, true modernization begins from within.


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