For all the rhetoric about the Philippines facing off against China in the South China Sea, the reality is that the country remains one of Asia’s weakest militaries and is building from a very low base (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”). Given that, one of the key lingering questions about the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been how it might approach military modernization during his single six-year term which lasts until 2022.
Though the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) faces a range of internal and external challenges – including insurgencies, natural disasters, and unresolved territorial and sovereignty issues with neighboring states – it spends only around 1 percent of its GDP on defense, which is behind the Southeast Asian average of around over 2 percent of GDP.
The Armed Forces Modernization Act, initiated under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III in 2013, was an attempt to make up for the anemic (and at times astrategic) investment of the past. Under the plan, Philippine military modernization over the next decade or so was divided into three horizons and phases: the first till the end of 2017; the second from 2018 to 2023; and the third from 2024 to 2028.
With the second horizon set to begin in 2018, there were questions about whether we could see significant changes in the country’s priorities. This is especially the case given the Duterte administration’s perceived tendency to place relatively greater emphasis on internal rather than external threats as well as the president’s own remarks about money being wasted on expensive military hardware like fighter jets.
Continuity or Change?
Less than a year into Duterte’s term, we have seen a mix of general continuity as well as some specific changes. Even if Duterte does not fully appreciate the importance of military modernization, the Department of National Defense (DND) still does and has made this clear. As Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in an interview with the Australia Naval Institute last week, modernization is critical not only to tackle immediate threats but also to enhance the management of the defense bureaucracy as well as promote greater professionalism to make the Philippines a strategic regional player by 2028.
The budget numbers we have seen thus far also suggest that the commitment to military modernization remains intact. As I have noted before, in its first-ever defense budget, the Duterte administration devoted the same 25 billion pesos amount to military modernization as the Aquino administration did last time around. This included funding for key, big-ticket items already prioritized for external defense like fighter jets, frigates, and radars.
That said, this is not to say that we have seen no changes at all. Duterte’s defense budget included a robust funding boost for the Philippine Army as well as a separate 25 percent budget increase for the Philippine National Police (PNP). That was a clear sign that even as the administration continues on with longer-term military modernization efforts, it will still place a great emphasis on internal threats that it will need to urgently confront as well that are in line with the priorities Duterte set out during the presidential campaign. That is a shift from where things initially were during the Aquino administration, where defense officials had suggested that the second horizon would focus more on areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and the maritime concerns like the South China Sea and not as much on internal security operations.
More specifically, though it is still early days, we have also seen intent to reprioritize some kinds of equipment over others in line with the administration’s threat assessment. In public remarks, Duterte has said that he wants the AFP to have more night-capable attack helicopters, fast boasts, as well as more body armor, rifles, and helmets to confront insurgents in the southern Philippines. Lorenzana has said that the DND is looking at the feasibility of including this as part of the existing list of equipment under the second horizon. He has also said that acquiring more modern systems is a priority, particularly in the Sulu Sea which has become a key focus for the Duterte administration.
To be fair, such revisions in defense lists are hardly unique to the Duterte administration, and it is still too early to determine if these revisions amount to a shift in strategic orientation. Seasoned observers will remember that similar changes were made under Aquino as well, at times with the same reasonable calculation that investing longer-term modernization needs to be balanced with acquiring the capabilities to confront shorter-term threats. The clearest example was the shelving of the planned Shore Based Missile System (SBMS) acquisition project in mid-2015 in favor of equipment for internal threats. Earlier this month, Army chief Lt. Gen Glorioso Miranda reiterated that the project would have to wait because the more urgent priority is addressing soldier survivability in combat to confront internal threats.
There are also some lingering uncertainties that will affect how Philippine military modernization plays out under the Duterte administration. There are more immediate ones, with the most obvious being the amount that Congress will actually end up allocating for the second horizon. Though the initial amount was 100 billion pesos, Lorenzana has said that he would be happy even if Congress just allocates the same 85 billion pesos that it did for the first horizon. If that ends up occurring, this would mean either a scaling down of certain planned purchases or shifting them out further into the third horizon.
Spending amounts and specific investments will also partly be contingent on how the Duterte administration manages its defense relationships, since these can serve as an additional means for the Philippines to strengthen its capabilities. Though most of the established ones with countries like Japan, Australia are quite stable, the key unknown is how things will end up with its treaty ally the United States with Donald Trump now in office. Some equipment may also be acquired with the help of new defense partners like China and Russia (See: “What’s the Deal with China-Philippines Military Ties”).
Then there are the more structural ones that will take longer to fully play out. For one, the threat environment a year or two from now could look quite different from how it does today, which could in turn lead to changes in the priorities for military modernization. More fundamentally, the robust defense spending we saw during the Aquino years was contingent upon strong economic growth, which in turn is driven by factors such as political stability and policy certainty. So far, these conditions have prevailed in spite of the controversy surrounding the administration thus far. Whether they endure throughout his term, however, is another matter.
With Duterte still just in the first year of his term, it may be too early to tell what is in store for Philippine defense modernization under Duterte. But how the second horizon ends up playing out will be closely scrutinized as a key indicator of what we might expect.