With his term set to end in June, it’s an appropriate time to review the Philippines’ military modernization efforts under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III. During his six years in office, military modernization has advanced at a scale unprecedented since the Marcos era – but it remains insufficient.
After the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were established with American military aid. The AFP encompassed three complete services with considerable capability, but the rampant Islamic and Communist insurgencies since the late 1960s, as well as Macros’ governance by martial law, shifted the AFP’s attention toward internal security and slowed the pace of military modernization. For instance, while regional countries, such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, introduced anti-ship missiles in the 1960s and 1970s, the Philippines did not follow suit and remains “missile free” to this day.
The People Power Revolution of 1986 terminated Marcos’ authoritarian regime, but the ensuing political and economic turmoil further disturbed Manila’s defense investments, and the closure of American bases seriously slashed the funding for military. Despite the seizure of Mischief Reef by China in 1995, substantial external security challenges did not alter this trend. The AFP even retired its aging fighter F-5 fighter jets in the early 2000s without providing for replacements.
Before Aquino, the Philippines’ military modernization was limited and functional. Generally, the AFP purchased and/or was given used equipment that would barely sustain existing capabilities, in addition to the are procurement of new assets. This approach marked the extent of military modernization during the four previous presidents, although more American military aid was provided during Arroyo’s term for the Philippines’ participation in the “war on terror.” However, Manila’s defense investments were not enough to institute long-term and sustainable procurement planning. As a consequence, Manila found itself unable to upgrade or replace various aging assets including vessels and artillery pieces.
The Philippines’ poor economy is commonly cited as an explanation for its limited defense investments, but other developing regional countries, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, have made greater strides in modernizing their arsenals over the same period. Difficult civil-military relations may be an additional major factor for the Philippines, as the Senate has rejected special budgets for defense investments several times.
Under Aquino, however, Manila has been able to obtain an unprecedented amount of arms in the past six years. The Scarborough standoff with China in 2012 and other Sino-Filipino maritime conflicts provided the necessary atmosphere for a military build-up; Aqunio’s generally high approval rates also helped ease the process. During this time, Manila has received a lengthy list of used assets as part of military aid programs: five landing craft from Australia, five UH-1 utility helicopters from Germany, 28 M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) from Israel, seven UH-1s, two C-130H transporter aircraft, two Hamilton class cutters, 23 Humvee ambulances, 114 M-113 APCs, and one coastal search radar from the United States.
Furthermore, the AFP has pursued new military acquisitions, including 12 South Korean FA-50 light fighters, three Spanish CN-295 transporter aircraft, an Indonesian land platform dock (LPD), 13 Italian A-109 light attack helicopters, eight American Bell-412 utility helicopters, two Indonesian C-212 transporter aircraft, and more than 200 South Korean military trucks, in addition to 18 Italian SF-260 trainers and eight Pole W-3 helicopters decided upon by the previous administration. Moreover, if its luck holds, Manila may be able to settle deals regarding new frigates, maritime patrol aircraft, close support aircraft, and amphibious assault vehicles in the near future. However, it must be noted that some military procurement projects, such as advanced fighters and shore based anti-ship missiles, are still being denied by the Philippine Senate.
Those projects are generally intended to sustain the existing functions of the AFP, which are mostly focused on internal security and other routine functions. But some of the new additions could gradually reshape the Philippines’ strategy. For example, the FA-50 combat aircraft, first delivered last November, finally ended a ten-year period without fighter jets in the Philippine military. The new aircraft allow air superiority to return as an important element in Manila’s defense strategy. As for the LPD, although the AFP is unlikely to carry out an amphibious operation, especially in the face of modern military threats, its large capacity will strengthen the capability for disaster relief, which is a regular mission for the AFP, especially during typhoon season. Finally, with larger vessels and new aircraft, the AFP has the means to substantially participate in joint exercises with foreign counterparts, something that was difficult to do with the AFP’s antique assets.
Despite the unprecedented scale of recent efforts, the Philippines’ military modernization since 2010 is still not enough. For one thing, the AFP has no effective means (e.g.,anti-ship missiles) to counter China in the West Philippine or South China Sea. As a result, Manila has almost no maneuver space for escalation in maritime conflicts with Beijing. The United States’ extended deterrence may supplement the Philippines’ insufficient force, but, given the AFP’s weak maritime combat capability, American intervention would be tantamount to shouldering the entire burden of a hypothetical conflict against China. Without firm resolve, decision makers in Washington would be reluctant to get involved to this extent, especially if Manila does not demonstrate enough commitment to its own security.
Apart from the maritime sphere, the AFP’s onshore forces are short in territorial defense capabilities. The Philippine Army’s and Marine Corp’s current mainstay, — infantry with limited artillery — is designed for counter insurgency rather than defending against external invasion. Just as the air force and navy do not have sufficient means to stop an invading force before it reaches the coast, the ground troops are unlikely to thwart invasion either. Historically, the Filipino people have conducted guerrilla warfare several times and the large number of civilian firearms would facilitate such combat, but such tactics are unlikely to alter the strategic situation.
Over the past six years, the Aquino administration has indeed improved the AFP’s operational conditions by introducing new and used assets at a rate that far outpaced previous presidents. That said, the country still have a long way to go before a self-sustaining defence capability. In addition, several of the Philippines’ presidential candidates currently do not seem strongly supportive of military modernisation. If Aquino’s successor downgrades defense investments, it will make the efforts over the past six years less meaningful.