Modernizing the Philippine Military

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Modernizing the Philippine Military

President Benigno Aquino has called for an upgrading of the nation’s armed forces. That’s easier said than done.

During his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Benigno Aquino reiterated his desire to upgrade the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). However, he cautioned that this is not something the government can easily pursue. Aquino further suggested that building a “minimum credible defense” would face challenges due to budgetary constraints. The AFP has very limited funds; in fact, an overwhelming majority of its military budget goes to personnel salaries and allowances, rather than defense capability upgrades. In addition, the 1987 Constitution prohibits the government from allocating more funds to the military than for education. In the proposed 2014 budget, PhP255.2 billion ($5.9 billion) was earmarked for the Department of Education and another PhP31.9 billion ($742 million) for state universities and colleges; a mere PhP81.8 billion ($1.9 billion) will go to the Defense Department and the AFP combined.

Not surprisingly, then, some analysts openly question whether the country can really afford to modernize its aging military or even establish a minimum credible defense – the two main defense priorities for the government. This situation frustrates both Philippine and foreign military planners who are eager to improve the military capabilities and capacity of the country; but is a reality that any serious military planner must accept and consider. Obviously, these measures require a long-term vision, patience and significant funding. The question then becomes: has the current Administration committed the country to any of these disciplines? Until the Philippine government more clearly defines how it intends to develop this strategy, and demonstrates the political will and commitment towards this end, potential antagonists will not regard the Philippine defense posture as either credible or capable.

Military Acquisitions Insufficient

The theory of minimum credible defense is a concept that has become popular in the public debate over the modernization of the Philippine military. Unfortunately, for the Philippines this is a very vague concept that the government has articulated poorly. Some government officials simply associate minimum credible defense with the acquisition of new military equipment and the improvement of military infrastructure. Others believe strategic military training is a crucial component of this effort. A high-ranking Department of National Defense (DND) official recently remarked that the government aims to modernize the military to deter “those who want to wage war” against the Philippines.

The DND official noted that the Philippines is planning up to 24 modernization projects  in the next three years. These projects – which the government will fund – include the acquisition of fighter jets, naval helicopters, patrol aircraft, frigates, patrol vessels and multi-purpose attack vessels. Among the most high profile acquisitions, the AFP will purchase three decommissioned Hamilton-class cutters from the U.S. Coast Guard; two are already in the possession of the Philippine Navy. The AFP is also set to buy twelve new FA-50 fighter jets from Korea Aerospace Industries, worth approximately $440 million. These additions to the AFP will undoubtedly help increase its capacity.

That said, many observers fail to recognize that the Philippine military is not that large, and was never designed or, more importantly, developed to provide for the defense of its expansive archipelagic territory. Many experts argue that billions of dollars would need to be invested to reconfigure the Philippine military into a credible defense force. However, with the closure of U.S. bases and the resultant loss of lease revenue, the AFP must now rely on congressional appropriations and AFP modernization funds to invest in new equipment. These sources are not sufficient to carry through modernization plans.

Dependence on Foreign Military Assistance

Until recently, the Philippines has been able to rest comfortably under the U.S. defense umbrella, in the face of relatively insignificant external threats. This has clearly created a degree of political complacency over the questions of defense capabilities and the modernization of the military. The AFP acquired much of its military equipment through various U.S. defense aid programs, including the Military Assistance Program, the Foreign Military Sales, and the Excess Defense Articles Program. This has earned some criticism from defense experts; a long time observer once remarked that the AFP deserves real modernization, not a “Potemkin village” built around a handful of aging aircraft and a few naval vessel acquisitions. However, even if the U.S. and other friendly nations were prepared to provide greater levels of military assistance, there will always be the question about how much the AFP, in its current state, could actually absorb.

Given the current structure of the Philippine military, and the apparent lack of political and public will to develop a truly stronger and more credible defense capability, one has to accept that the Philippine military has a very limited capacity to absorb significant foreign military assistance and materiel. Even now, with the “immediate” and “credible” threat of Chinese aggression, there appears to be little public appetite for a significantly stronger military. Many experts argue that it would take a major shift in government policy – not to mention political will – to make the required paradigm change. Until those shifts take place, and the public accepts the need to fund a stronger military – the Philippines will remain primarily dependent on diplomatic measures to defend its territory. That means forging and sustaining strategic alliances with more powerful allies such as the U.S., Australia, and Japan.

Richard Jacobson is the Director of Operations at Pacific Strategies & Assessments, which conducts socio-political, economic and business risk assessments for clients in the Asia-Pacific.