Is the Philippines’ Military Modernization Dead in the Water?
Image Credit: US Navy Photo

Is the Philippines’ Military Modernization Dead in the Water?


A few weeks before President Benigno Aquino’s delivered his last State of the Nation Address on 27 July 2015, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published an article criticizing the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) for scuttling the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) planned acquisition of a shore-based missile system (SBMS) as part of the build-up of the country’s territorial/maritime defense capabilities.

Instead of the missile system, the DND opted for the purchase of marksmen rifles, long range sniper weapons system, and protective gears for the Philippine Army’s (PA) counter-insurgency operations. The DND and the Israeli Ministry of Defense spent several years negotiating the SBMS deal, which is worth Php6.5 billion (estimated US$120 million). The missile system would be put under the operational control of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and would be installed along the coast of the Philippines’ western-most island of Palawan as part of the AFP’s maritime interdiction system against China’s growing naval presence in the South China Sea.

The negotiation for the missile deal was concluded in December 2014 and contract was waiting for President Aquino’s final approval.  However, in April 2015, Secretary Voltaire Gazmin removed the SBMS project from the AFP’s list for the first horizon of the AFP modernization program (2013-2018) and replaced it with designated marksmen rifles, chemical-biological-radiological gear, and long-range sniper weapons system.

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Then Army Commander and now AFP Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Hernando Iriberri reasoned that while the SBMS project was important to the country’s  defense of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) it was [sic is] more appropriate to fill the “gaps in the battlefield equipment in view of clear, present and continuing occurrences of terrorist acts.” Secretary Gazmin then successfully convinced President Aquino to remove the SBMS from the list of military hardware that will be purchased during his term and replaced it with equipment geared for primarily internal security. General Iriberri justified President Aquino’s decision by declaring that it was “for the best interest of the 85,000-strong PA.”

General Iriberri’s declaration however, begs the question: how does the acquisition of weapons system geared for internal security fit into the Philippine military’s overall and long-term thrust of shifting from internal security to territorial/maritime defense?

Since he assumed the presidency in mid-2010, Aquino vowed to pursue an AFP modernization program that would transform the Philippine military from an army-centered counter-insurgency-oriented organization to a modern armed force capable of overseeing territorial defense and maritime security. In clear emphatic terms, President Aquino spoke of “enhanced security” for national defense and put forward the country’s claim for territories in the South China Sea through the modernization of its navy and the air force. The March 2, 2011 incident at Reed Bank, where two Chinese civilian vessels harassed a Philippine survey ship and China dismissed the Philippines’ diplomatic queries about the incident, drove the Aquino administration to hasten the AFP’s strategic shift from internal security to territorial/maritime defense.

In its first 17 months of the Aquino administration, the DND spent Php33.596 billion to boost the AFP’s internal security and territorial defense capability.  The bulk of the budget was supposed to be earmarked for projects for the use by the PAF and the Philippine Navy (PN), specifically for the purchase of materiel for “joint maritime surveillance, defense, and interdiction operations in the South China Sea.” In October 2011, Voltaire Gazmin released the Defense Planning Guidance (2013-2018), restructuring the AFP to a “lean but fully capable” armed forces to confront the challenges to the country’s territorial integrity and maritime security. The Philippines’ immediate territorial defense goal is to establish a modest but “comprehensive border protection program” centered around the surveillance, deterrence, and border patrol capabilities of the PAF, the PN, and the Philippine Coast Guard (PSG). The long-term goal, according to the earlier 2011 AFP’s Strategic Intent, is to develop the force structure and capabilities enabling the Philippine military to maintain a “credible deterrent posture against foreign intrusion or external aggression, and other illegal activities while allowing free navigation to prosper.”

Deep into 2015, however, the AFP has only acquired two former U.S. Coast Guard Cutters (The BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and the BRP Alcaraz) and a contract for the acquisition of 12 F/A-50 multi-purpose fighter planes from South Korea to be delivered in 2016.  The DND is still looking at the offers by South Korea and Spain to supply two brand new frigates for the Philippine Navy’s Desired Force Mix—a naval acquisition program aimed to give the navy some limited anti-air/anti-submarine capabilities.  However, the project has been in the pipe-line for the last two years because the PN is in quandary whether it will acquire cheaper second-hand ships or the more expensive newly constructed vessels.

Despite the initial acquisition of six Multi-Purpose Attack Crafts (MPACs) for the PN, the DND postponed its purchase of missile-armed MPAC until such time when the Department of Budget and Management has released the funds for the implementation of this project.  As the International Institute for International and Strategic Studies’ (IISS) 2012 Military Balance prophetically noted: “President Aquino vowed that the Philippines would provide a stronger military defense for its South China Sea claims, this promise may have been aspirational rather than grounded in concrete policy-making or budgetary provision.”

The DND’s decision to scrap the SBMS reflects the apparent defect of the Aquino administration’s 2011 knee-jerk decision to shift the AFP’s focus from internal security to territorial/maritime defense.  One Filipino legislator noted that since the decision was a not a product of a long-term strategic planning, “military purchases and deployments had become erratic or wishy-washy, where a single official could amend strategy based solely on perception and through deliberation.”  Another Filipino legislator quirked “that it was unusual for the AFP to prioritize internal threats when its main responsibility was to protect the country from foreign incursions, like China’s (naval) build-up in the disputed waters.” A former air force officer turned legislator questioned the dramatic change in the military’s priority when he asked the DND and the AFP to explain “why they dropped the missile purchase because their justification – increased threat from terrorists – was too flimsy to justify drastic change in (arms) acquisition.”

Stung by criticism from the Filipino legislators, a Philippine Army spokesperson said that the SMBS project was not scrapped by merely moved into the second horizon or phase of the AFP Modernization Program (2016-2022). This means the missile system will be purchased and installed by the AFP after President Aquino’s term ends in 2016. Thus, the SMBS project, along with other planned acquisitions for the PAF and the PN, is practically “dead in the water” for the time being.

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and the holder of the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies. He was the U.S. State Department ASEAN Research Fellow from the Philippines.

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