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Is the Philippine Coast Guard Being Militarized?

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Asia Defense

Is the Philippine Coast Guard Being Militarized?

Bureaucratic and financial reasons are the real cause of the influx of military troops into the PCG.

Is the Philippine Coast Guard Being Militarized?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ RoyKabanlit

In 2017, right after the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) received a nod from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to add 4,000 personnel, more than 100 active and former members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) expressed their intention to join the coast guard ranks. The PCG leadership quickly recruited more than 30 former members of the Philippine Marine Corps.

Recently, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) approved a memorandum circular that set guidelines for commissioned officers and enlisted personnel from the AFP and other uniformed services to join the PCG. The prospect of joining the coast guard while keeping their military ranks and retirement benefits is irrefutably convincing for the members of the AFP. But the interesting question is why did the DBM and DOTr approve such a scheme?

There are three compelling reasons that forced the PCG to open its gates to the members of the military. The first one is the legal provisions of the Philippine Coast Guard Law of 2009, which defined the hierarchical distribution of the ranks of its officers and the required equivalent ratio to enlisted personnel. The second reason is that the ongoing reorganization of the PCG gives high regards to the professional qualifications, specialized skills, and distinctive competencies of its personnel. Lastly, recruiting former and active military personnel with such experience is more cost-effective than recruiting civilians.

The Coast Guard Law of 2009

Although the PCG is going full throttle in recruiting additional personnel to perform its mandates, it is still necessary to maintain the pyramidal structure of the PCG hierarchy as clearly stipulated by the Republic Act 9993. Section 7 defines the officer rank distribution of the PCG officers, starting from the rank of Coast Guard Ensign up to Coast Guard Admiral. Taking into consideration this provision vis-à-vis the current strength of the PCG officers, this would mean that the annual recruitment of officers with an entry rank of CG Ensign would violate the law, since it would exceed the set distribution limit for the most junior PCG ranks. Thus, for the PCG to efficiently utilize the personnel increase without violating its enabling law, DBM evenly distributed the ranks of 4,000 added personnel not just for officers but nonofficers as well.

Keeping the officer ratios intact requires either earlier promotions of incumbent officers or opening the PCG to the officers and enlisted personnel of the AFP and other members of the uniformed service in the Philippines who possess functional qualifications, specialized skills, and distinctive competencies with significantly vast experience, and allowing them to join the coast guard service through lateral entry.

Favoring lateral entry rather than internal promotions has been the strategy for PCG. It seeks to attract senior officers with professional experience from other uniformed services to join and serve the coast guard. If the additional quota for each rank was to be filled via promotion, it could result in haphazardly promoting junior officers who may still lack the needed professional experience and competence to assume the responsibilities that are entailed for higher ranks.

PCG Requires Technical Qualifications

After the PCG was transferred to the DOTr, the professional development of its personnel with stringent correlation to its mandates had stagnated. Despite the passage of its enabling law, the existing career patterns of its personnel failed to adopt the required technical skills of its mandates and the needed competency levels to support its day-to-day operations. The current “generalist concept” feebly addressed the demands of the maritime industry in the context of maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime security. The PCG’s daily tasks require technical qualifications, and it needs specialized individuals to ensure that its missions are administratively and logistically supported.

Without a doubt, it is time for the PCG to have a paradigm shift from a generalist concept to a specialist one. After more than two decades of separation from the Philippine Navy, the PCG now has a clear grasp of the complexities of its defined powers and functions, which require specialized individuals to be effectively enforced. It is an open secret that nobody among its personnel, whether officer or non-officer, can be considered as an expert in any of the PCG’s core functions. The PCG also lacks human resources who possess specific skills to perform dedicated tasks in fiscal programming, logistics management, and intelligence operations, among others.

Moving forward, the best time to realign the career pattern of the PCG’s human resources to the path of specialization is now. The massive increase in recruitment prepares the PCG to once again identify its present and future personnel in terms of the specific area where the organization can utilize them. The entry of former military personnel in the PCG based on their professional experience and technical qualifications will set the ball rolling in reorganizing the coast guard based on specialized expertise.

One good example are the air force pilots and naval officers who have served sea duty; their professional experience is relevant for the PCG in building its aviation force and fleet respectively. Moreover, it is worth noting that the AFP was able to train its personnel based on their job descriptions. This separation of dedicated personnel is what the PCG needs to professionalize its administrative staff, while at the same time allowing the specialists to efficiently performs day-to-day mandates without worrying about the admin jobs.

The Cost Effectiveness in Recruiting Experienced Soldiers

On many occasions, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno has mentioned the looming problem in paying retirees and those who are active members of the uniformed service. He explained that the salary pie had been largely eaten by retirement pensions compared to the salarys of those who are still in the service. In short, recruiting additional personnel that entails additional salaries is a dilemma for DBM. It is for this reason that when the PCG explained the provisions of its law and its prospective plan to recruit former and active members of the military, the DBM approved their personnel increase of 4,000 in 2017.

Relatedly, it is also worth noting that the experience and qualifications of these military personnel are valuable enough for the PCG to make use of. Their years in the military inculcated in them the very essence of professionalism and discipline. It would certainly take some years before a civilian recruit could be on par with their competence and selfless service. The foreign and local training that they attended is priceless for the PCG.

The concept of recruiting personnel to the coast guard with prior service is not a new trend. This was originally conceptualized by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), wherein the former members of the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or any National Guard or Reserve components may be eligible to continue their military service in the coast guard. Former military personnel may even be qualified to keep their previous military ranks based on the result of an evaluation. Such a strategy is in recognition of their technical expertise and professional experience that could be utilized by the USCG.

Policy Implications

In summary, it is worth emphasizing that the various day-to-day jobs of the PCG require technical skills and professional qualifications for its personnel to be useful in carrying out its functions.  The developments approved by the Duterte administration and the massive support from foreign partners will all go to waste if the PCG personnel remain incompetent and unqualified to perform their respective jobs.  Gone are the days when sheer brute force was the only requirement for military personnel to implement a law. The PCG’s mandates require necessary knowledge and technical know-how in understanding maritime laws and safety regulations.

However, the PCG leadership should be careful in ensuring that the military personnel who will join the coast guard ranks have the necessary qualifications and experience; otherwise, they will just be added warmed bodies.

It is time for the PCG to restructure its professional career ladder to define the specialization of each of its personnel. The generalist concept of knowing everything without the mastery of anything is dangerous for a uniformed organization that has been entrusted with so much power to perform maritime security, to enforce maritime safety, and to protect the marine environment.

Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. student at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu.