PH military trudges on a long road to credible defense capacity
by Inquirer | Dec 29, 2020
Eighty-five years since its founding, the Armed Forces of the Philippines held a rare parade at sea—a first in recent years. Seven large Philippine Navy ships followed by smaller vessels, passed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and senior military officials who were aboard the BRP Davao del Sur (LD-602) off the coast of Morong, Bataan on a bright, sunny day in mid-December. Dozens of aircraft, old and new, put on a show in the skies.
Leading the line of ships were no longer hand-me-downs. BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150), the newly-acquired multi-role frigate from South Korea, took the lead, while BRP Tarlac (LD-601), an Indonesian-built landing dock vessel like the Davao del Sur, trailed behind.
Just several months ago, the Philippine Navy’s most capable warship was BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39), a former Pohang-class corvette from South Korea, named after a Philippine Army soldier killed in action in the Korean War.
Clearly, the fleet review wasn’t a show of force. Lorenzana acknowledged that the AFP was still nowhere near the military might of its regional neighbors. The event was rather a display of the modest strides in the AFP’s modernization program.
“We want to show the Filipino people that the AFP is continuously upgrading, so they can see where their taxes go… It’s a modest demonstration of our capabilities but it’s a big leap from where we came from before,” he said.
The Philippines, an archipelago with one of the world’s longest coastlines, has one of the weakest armed forces in the region. The military continues to modernize itself, albeit at a rather slow pace, in the face of wide-ranging security concerns, like China’s persistent aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Efforts to build up the armed forces began under former president Benigno Aquino III in 2012 after the ambitious AFP modernization push in 1995 did not go as planned.
Spotlight on upgrade
The year 2020 presented various challenges to the Philippine military, putting a spotlight on the actual state of the AFP’s modernization program.
When the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States was threatened to be terminated after an outburst by President Rodrigo Duterte early this year, security and foreign affairs officials quickly cautioned against revoking the agreement straight away and pushed for a thorough review instead.
The VFA provides the legal framework for the large-scale entry of American troops into the Philippines. It also allows the US to rapidly assist in disaster response, counter-terrorism efforts and capability building.
Lorenzana told the Senate in February that the Philippines, which depended largely on the US for decades, needed to strengthen its military first if it didn’t want to forever rely on its American ally.
“I think our long-term interest is to be self-sufficient in our defense,” he said.
“We should have at least a minimum deterrent capability. Now, whether we need the VFA indefinitely, I think we do not need the VFA indefinitely. So we should use the interim to build up our capabilities,” he said.
The looming VFA abrogation, however, was abruptly overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic in March. The military, which took an oath to defend the country against all threats, suddenly found itself on the frontlines of an uncharted territory, fighting an unseen enemy amid traditional conflicts.
Troops were deployed to help police enforce checkpoints, help in coronavirus testing, serve as encoders, builders. Military assets were mobilized to transport stranded passengers, personal protective equipment and other crucial supplies.
A pair of the Philippine Air Force’s C-130 cargo planes worked harder than usual, with regular back and forth trips to China to pick up one million PPE sets procured by the government for workers on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. At one point, Lorenzana expressed fear the planes would be overused.
“That’s what we fear, our planes having trouble. In that case we will have to lease civilian cargo planes,” he told Inquirer.net in April.
The Department of Health (DOH) then said that it was in search for bigger planes than the C-130s, because a single C-130 flight can carry only 15,000 PPE sets
The Navy’s logistics vessel BRP Bacolod City (LS-550) was deployed to China and hauled 200,000 PPE sets. Bigger ships that could likely accommodate more supplies were elsewhere at the time. The BRP Davao del Sur was in the Middle East, supposedly to repatriate overseas Filipino workers who would want to come home because of the supposed impending conflict there. Tensions cooled down later on but the ship stayed there for a few more months with BRP Ramon Alcaraz. Davao del Sur’s sister-ship BRP Tarlac was in the dry dock.
Because of the pandemic, the government had to realign funds from several agencies for its COVID-19 response, including the defense department’s meager budget for the modernization program. This meant the implementation of some projects had to be pushed back.
The Navy put off the scheduled decommissioning of legacy ships this year because the planned acquisition of new replacements was disrupted due to COVID-19.
The Philippine military’s fragile cyber defense structure also received attention from lawmakers, after the Department of National Defense (DND) went ahead with a deal with Chinese-backed telco Dito Telecom to set up cell towers in military camps.
The DND earlier proposed a P500 million budget for cybersecurity in 2021 to improve its capacity.
Toward the end of 2020, a spate of typhoons highlighted once more the Philippine military’s limited capabilities. Aircraft, vessels and vehicles were deployed, but it did not seem enough.
“The greatest challenge is the lack of equipment,” Lorenzana said in Filipino. “Because AFP equipment is deployed all over the country. The typhoon not only hit Luzon. Central Philippines, Visayas, they also have their own problems,” Lorenzana said in November.
“We have equipment, we have personnel but sometimes it is still lacking,” he said.
Despite the pandemic, the military received deliveries of several new equipment this year. In May, South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries delivered BRP Jose Rizal, touted as the Navy’s first missile-capable frigate.
Rizal is the first of two frigates purchased for P16 billion, with another P2 billion for weapon systems and munition. The acquisition of the frigates was fraught with controversies in 2017 because of the defense department’s sacking of then Navy chief Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado over the selection of the combat management systems.
The CMS requirement was not eventually met on time for the delivery as it was promised by the contractor, leaving the DND to accept the South Korean government’s sovereign guarantee. Whether Mercado was right all along in pushing for the Navy technical working group’s preferences of another CMS early on is another story.
Six Super Tucano A29B light attack aircraft from Brazil’s Embraer SA were delivered to the Philippine Air Force last October. These air assets worth P4.698 billion will strengthen close air support for counterinsurgency missions.
Air transport roles would also get a boost with the commissioning of the first 6 of 16 Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk combat utility helicopters in December. These would be primarily used in ferrying troops and cargo, medical evacuation, resupply, search and rescue, limited close air support, and disaster relief.
Other deliveries in 2020 included Gulfstream G280 transport plane, fast boats, all-terrain vehicles, and KM450 trucks.
The Philippines was also a recipient of assorted military equipment from the United States worth almost P2 billion. These included MK-82 bombs; 100 tube launched optically guided wireless tow missiles 2A Bunker Busters; 12 improved target acquisition system and support equipment, ScanEagle drones, sniper rifles and anti-IED equipment.
Even with some delays due to the pandemic, contracts were still awarded for some projects like air surveillance radar systems, self-propelled howitzers, attack helicopters, light tanks and wheeled armored personnel carriers.
Last November, the DND paid more attention to its self-reliant defense posture by embedding it to its logistics and acquisitions unit as part of a reorganizational structure.
The AFP was able to carry out a major unilateral exercise called DAGIT-PA in late 2020 to test the interoperability of troops and assets among the three branches of service.
“We really have to be interoperable. One service needs another. For example, if you are dealing with a terrorist, it’s not only the Army that is needed. You need the support of the air and naval forces,” AFP vice chief Lt. Gen. Erickson Gloria told reporters.
The AFP modernization budget for 2021, which was earlier pegged at around P33 billion, was slashed by P5.2 billion by the bicameral committee, co-chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara and ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Go Yap. The funds were transferred to the Department of Public Works and Highways, Inquirer earlier reported.
The budget for the upgrade was now set at P27 billion, according to Lorenzana. This would be spent on frigates, combat engineering equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, C4ISTAR, radars, ground-based air defense, howitzers, light tanks and wheeled armored personnel carriers, medium-lift aircraft, missile-firing fast attack interdiction craft, and heavy-lift helicopters.
Some of the deliveries expected next year are those for ground-based air defense systems, self-propelled howitzers, second hand C-130 plane, remaining 10 Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk helicopters and the BRP Antonio Luna (FF-151), the sister-ship of BRP Jose Rizal.
Rizal has so far performed various missions in the first few months after her delivery, including the Navy’s participation in the US-led Rim of the Pacific, the world’s largest maritime exercise held in Hawaii. With the impending arrival of Luna, they will be the most capable ships in the fleet.
The military is anticipated to play another significant role in 2021 on top of its existing responsibilities. Lorenzana said he expects the armed forces to be at the forefront of the distribution of the much-awaited vaccines across the country once these start to arrive. The military’s land, air, and sea assets could be heavily involved in this future task. But there was still no definite plan, he said.
2021 is the penultimate year for Horizon 2, the second stage of the military’s modernization program. It was designed to achieve minimum credible defense capability and has a timetable of 2018 to 2022.
Based on the DND presentation to the Senate last October, there are at least 20 projects approved by Duterte amounting to P158.55 billion that still needed funds.
According to the agency’s assessment, the current allocation for the AFP modernization program projects is insufficient to support the remaining approved projects under the Horizon 2 and the new AFP priority projects.
Lorenzana told senators that some projects could be moved to Horizon 3, which spans 2023 to 2028.
Under the Horizon 2, the Philippine military planned to purchase multi-role fighters, offshore patrol vessels, corvettes, light tanks, and other assets that would boost its effective force presence.
The military has a long wish list but Navy chief Vice Adm. Giovanni Carlo Bacordo said he was looking forward to the acquisition of “game-changers.”
“I’m more excited for the game-changers,” Bacordo said. These included two submarines and a shore-based anti-ship missile system. ”That, for me, are the big game changers,” he told reporters in mid-December.
“It has a big role in deterrence,” he said. “That is for the defense for our archipelago. Can you imagine a scenario where we have mobile missile systems spread all over the archipelago reaching up to 200 nautical mile range, then we will have a credible defense,” he said.
Lorenzana said the Philippines would no longer be bullied if it had a minimum credible defense posture, but without identifying who is the bully.
“So that we will not be bullied. We have something to fight with,” Lorenzana said. “If you get punched, you have something to punch with. They will also have a bloody nose. It’s to defend our territory, not as an offensive force,” he said.