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Opinion: The Philippines Military Modernization Severely Snagged

President Benigno S. Aquino III, accompanied by Philippine Nay (PN) Flag Officer-in-Command (FOIC) Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano, tour and inspect the facilities of the BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF16) in 2013.

President Benigno S. Aquino III, accompanied by Philippine Nay (PN) Flag Officer-in-Command (FOIC) Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano, tour and inspect the facilities of the BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF16) in 2013.

The Philippines’ armed services modernization program took a strange and alarming turn recently as President Benigno Aquino III’s final term comes to a close.
The program took a nasty hit in July when the newly installed chief of staff General Hernando Irriberi, called for and successfully led an effort to push back the shore-based missile project in favor of purchasing more helmets, body armor, squad weapons and tactical radios. Then came the one-two punch, with another newly minted flag officer—navy Rear Adm. Cesar Taccad—stating during his August swearing-in, “No expansion is happening. They [China] are just pursuing their interests”—a stunning commentary in light of accelerated reclamation efforts by the People’s Republic of China in the contested Spratly Islands.

The developments are both alarming and puzzling, given Aquino’s platform and track record to improve the nation’s external defense posture. More important, it comes on the heels of several stalled key acquisitions that were to be delivered during his term, including the on-again, off-again frigate program, the long-range maritime patrol aircraft and the air defense radar network.

As a lame-duck incumbent, Aquino’s reticence in responding to such contradicting moves on his agenda is a sign of local political culture; he is leaving the cleanup and next moves to whomever inherits his office. Chief of Staff Irriberi’s motivation appears purely patriarchical; the army has received the smallest share of the overall modernization budget—to date approximately 10 percent of the monies allocated. Notably, he would neither account nor comment on previous tranches of the same equipment for which the missile systems were sacrificed—thousands of pieces of force protection gear, including vests and other items obtained in the past few years that never made it into service; the gear languishes in warehouses, labeled as defective and remaining untested. Admiral Taccad’s comments appear to be a circling of the wagons—every move made since the acquisition of the former U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton cutters has been aimed toward improving the incremental capabilities of the sea service, with a mind to increasing presence in the disputed areas of the Western Philippine Sea.

These latest developments have put a huge dent not only in the modernization progress of Asia’s weakest military, but potentially into American foreign policy as well. With sequestration still a significant factor, the U.S. pivot to Asia is counting more than ever on improving the capabilities of friendly regional powers, without having to invest significant amounts of money or to commit additional military forces. Such a strategy relies heavily upon each of those nations making the necessary efforts and expenditures to stand up a military that can interoperate with U.S. forces and provide some of the presence operations sorely needed to check China’s Nine-Dash Line agenda.

 The Philippine navy frigates BRP Gregaorio del Pilar (PF-15), left, and BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF-16), left, are underway with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) in 2014. US Navy Photo

The Philippine navy frigates BRP Gregaorio del Pilar (PF-15), left, and BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF-16), left, are underway with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) in 2014. US Navy Photo

The Philippines still has only a tenuous hold on its claims in the Spratlys, and even having pulled out of a 13-year “death spiral” of declining spending and degraded capabilities, the culture of American dependence has not yet been fully broken. Despite an influx of net-new platforms (various army vehicle transports, navy and air force helicopters, medium lift turboprops), the bulk of assets within all service branches are aging or excess defense articles (EDA). It is the latter category that is complicating and potentially delaying progress in the modernization program; as regional and superpowers upgrade their own systems, the discards become part of an EDA effort to boost lesser-equipped allies. It is strongly believed that the recent announcement by Japan to start retiring their license-built P-3 Orions in favor of homebuilt Kawasaki P-1 jets may have put a wrench in the Philippines’ intentions to buy new maritime patrol planes. Japan’s Orions are generally acknowledged to be the best maintained out of all existing models currently in service; it would not have been a far jump for the Philippines to succumb to the idea yet again of gaining incremental improvements at a lower acquisition cost. It is that type of thinking that needs to be burned out of national defense planning.

While the policy reversals by Aquino’s military leaders may simply boil down to branch politics and lame-duck hi-jinks, the impacts are all too real. Further delays and distractions to a modernization program beset by corruption and failed bids negatively impact the ability to exert territorial control and preserve Philippine claims in the contested areas.

It is increasingly obvious that the Philippines need to pursue several courses of action. For modernization, the program must get back on track and focus solely on new Day 1 turnkey weapon systems. The capability gap is too large to bridge by relying solely upon EDA. Even in cases where new build is achieved, such as the purchase of strategic sea lift vessels from Indonesia, the ships are missing weapon systems and potentially sensor/communication suites upon delivery. This so-called “fitted for but not with” practice degrades any initial investments in modernization by deferring to properly provision an asset and become fully mission capable. Secondly, despite a dearth of assets, the Philippines has a baseline of equipment from which they should start reasserting its claims and presence.

One particular area that needs such tending is to address the Chinese presence at Scarborough Shoals, less than 200 nautical miles from the main island of Luzon. Finally, while the Philippine defense feformation effort at large has turned around a sinking vessel, it is still very much in doubt if the destination can be reached. There are still significant areas of improvement to be made, to reduce the potential of corruption, and to vastly improve the procurement and bidding practice to make purchases more flexibly and timely.

  • This is why if the Philippines wanted to Modernize in a hurry, they need to focus on getting all the 2nd hand military gear such as the Hamilton class Cutters, Island class Patrol Boats, Maestrale class Frigates, Lupo class Frigates and Bremen class Frigates. They can get 2nd hand fighters such as Mirage 2000 or go new on the Cheap such as Mig-29UPG or Mig-35’s.

    • Secundius

      @ Nicky.

      You’re Right Nicky! But like Every Military and Government Official in the World, You Have Your “Doubter’s” who Refuse To Believe. Even if it’s “Staring Them In the Face”. The Philippine Air Force is getting ~50 New FA-50’s Light Attack Fighters from South Korea. Let’s face it, the Philippine are Swapping Islands for Time. Over 7,000 Islands, but Precious Few Time…

      • Which is why if they wanted a Navy in a hurry, they could have talked to South Korea on taking their used Ulsan class Frigate and Pohang class Corvette. They can make a grab for the Remaining Hamilton class cutters. It would give them a creditable navy to stand on.

        • Secundius

          @ Nicky.

          Only, if the Philippines can AFFORD to BUY and South Korea is WILLING to SELL…

          • Well, the Ulsan class Frigates and Pohang class Corvettes are being retired. So the Philippines can ask for them in a hurry.

          • Curtis Conway

            The best idea in my mind is trade capability for land and access. We not only need Subic for the ship maintenance activity, but some operational bases closer to the South China Sea. The PI could use a couple of squadrons of some F/A-18C/Ds. As they are displaced in the USN inventory we can rework (NARF) them and pass them on. A training program would have to be stood up for flight and maintenance training. Much better to have two engines over water, and that is what most of the PI is surrounded by.

          • That’s why since the USN is retiring their old F/A-18 C/D’s, the Philippines can simply take them off the USN/USMC’s hands.

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            Since the End of WW2, the Philippines weren’t a Threat to Anybody or Anyone. Now there Sitting On Top of a Large Oil Reserve, with NO WAY to Protect that Reserve or Themselves. NOW They have to Relearn there Place in the Real World, and they have “Scant” WEALTH to do it With. So, until there able to Catch Up, or at the Very Least Defend Themselves. Everthing they acquire is probable going to be Cast-Off’s and Hand-Me-Down’s. The ONLY asset’s they have is the Oil Reserve, and even that is only going to carry them to the Middle of This Century. And then, there back to Square One…

          • That’s why, getting them the old Ulsan class Frigates and Pohang class Corvettes could bring their Military into the late 70’s and 1980’s era.

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            We’ll just have to see, how far a ~$3-Billion USD. Defense Budget get’s the Philippine Military…

          • $3 Billion doesn’t go alot these days. $3 billion would pay for Maintenance, upkeep and salaries

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            The 2016, Philippine Defense Budget in expected to be “Bumped-Up” ~25% or ~$552-Million USD…

          • In most Militaries, the typical budget is at least $10+ Billion dollars

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            In 2014, Israel had a Defense Budget of ~$121-Billion USD. Unfortunately, the USA Contributed ~25% of that Budget or ~$30.25-Billion USD. My the Philippines, should “Stitch” a Blue Star of David on the Flag and get the Same Treatment…

          • Then the problem is graft and corruption. The Philippines never cleaned that up and it’s still a problem.

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            Unfortunately Nicky, that’s not going to change anytime soon, if ever…

          • That’s why Graft and Corruption will always hamper the Philippines

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            As I recall, It’s hampered every Military and Government going back to Troy. If not Earlier. Greed is Human Nature, Just Like Every Other “VICE” on the Planet. Even Animal’s have Greed, or their wouldn’t be an “Alpha” or an “Omega” dominance…

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            There’s also the “Flip-Side” of the Coin, Nicky. From the Philippine’s Prospective, we (the USA) are Leasing FIVE Military Sites in the Philippines. Why should they Protect their Own Country, When We the United States of America can do that TOO. And have the Privilege of Paying Them (the Philippine’s) ~$27-Billion USD. a Year, at the SAME TIME…

      • I think The Philippines should be making a deal with the British on building the River class OPV that is similar to what the Royal Thai Navy has. If they can learn to build the River class OPV. It can give them the skills to build their own ship. On the plus side, they can crank out OPV’s to guard their smaller island and EEZ.

        • Secundius

          @ Nicky.

          The Philippine Defense Budget for 2015 is ~$3-Billion USD. and they have a ~$72-Billion USD. External Debt. So, even with ~$27-Billion USD. coming in each year from the US. Government, GUESS which is Going To Get Paid First…

          • That’s why the Philippines have a problem with Rampant graft and Corruption. Unless they fix it, they will never modernize.

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            Nicky, We have Rampant Graft and Corruption in Our Government Too. And, yet thing’s seem to get done…

          • The Philippines have it far worse

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            Nicky, If we CAN’T Rein In the Corruption in our Own Government. What make’s you think the Filipino’s are going to be able too rein in their Government…

          • The US ain’t that bad

          • Secundius

            @ Nicky.

            It’s BAD ENOUGH

  • milomonkey

    philiphino goverment and top military are all corrupt and practically useless.. many brave philiphine soldiers are sacrificed because lack of funding and lack of competent officers.. it is a much deeper symptom than just giving money to the philiphines , most of it will just get stolen by crooked officials / generals..

    • Secundius

      @ milomonkey.

      That Description Fit’s every Military and Government on the Planet…

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  • Ralph

    They had the US Navy at no cost in the Subic Bay and kicked them out! Now they’ll have to pay instead of collect.

    • Michael Nunez

      Good Post , Now it’s Time to look at the Philippines for what they are….. . What are the good point’s and the bad , before any American’s are used to protect whom we can not trust to Manage their own Country .

  • John B. Morgen

    What if the Philippines was still an American colony, or later become our 51 st state. Would the situation in the SCS be a whole lot different. Anyone care to comment?

  • Dan Castaneda

    Stop listening from the leftist groups. They are pro Chinese groups and lobbyists in the Philippine congress.

  • Jhun Ladao

    binawasan ang pera pang-gastus sa election.

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  • Jez James

    Nailed it! The Philippines sadly has the most incompetent political and military leaders in Asia, bar none! All fit for the firing squad.

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