On military modernization: Money for nothing

September 16, 2021

by Dishan Joy Pilar

There have been a series of mishaps lately, involving newly acquired Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) aircraft. Yet, the Duterte government continues to prioritize defense in the 2022 budget, particularly AFP modernization.

Two months ago, a C-130 crashed in Patikul, Sulu, claiming the lives of 50 military personnel and three civilians. One factor identified that contributed to the accident was the defective aircraft’s operation system. Earlier this January, the United States government endorsed the Php2.5 billion-worth refurbished C-130 to the Duterte government through a grant under the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

However, this is not the only case wherein a purchased materiel of the Duterte government has encountered issues. Prior to the Sulu crash, a S-70i Blackhawk utility helicopter and its crew failed to come back from their night flying exercises in Tarlac last June 23. All the passengers died in the crash.

The proposed budget for 2022 shows that defense and public order is one of the top three priorities of the Duterte administration. The Department of National Defense (DND) alone has been allocated Php222 billion for its operations, landing on the third spot with 4.4% share of the overall budget. Though this should no longer come as a surprise, it still shows the Duterte government’s level of callousness and indifference to the present plight of the Filipino people.

Lost horizons

The DND allocates a huge portion of the defense budget to the AFP Modernization Program, which is increasing by Php8 billion to Php35 billion in 2022. The DND will apparently use the money to purchase the remaining machinery and equipment on their shopping list for the completion of Horizon II, the second phase of the long-running modernization program.

It was former president and former general Fidel V. Ramos who signed Republic Act (RA) 7898 or the AFP Modernization Act into law in 1995. The law mandated the upgrade of the Philippine military’s capability and the restructuring of the organization, presumably to protect national security and patrimony and assist in the country’s development. However, attributing to various crises the following years including the 1997 Asian financial crisis, growing unrest in Mindanao and those within the military, the government did not get to fully implement the program until its conclusion in 2011.

In 2012, the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines happened over the two countries’ growing territorial dispute. This and succeeding incidents of China’s continued incursions apparently prompted the revival of the modernization program. RA 10349 amended RA 7898 and extended the AFP Modernization Program for another 15 years, which would focus more on the external defense capability and would run from 2013 to 2028.

The program has three phases called “horizons”. The Aquino and Duterte administrations shared the implementation of Horizon I, which ended in 2017. The Duterte administration started Horizon II in 2018 to be completed in 2022. The next administration will start Horizon III, which will last until 2028.

Someone’s trash, our treasure?

The Aquino administration signed the revised AFP Modernization Program with an initial budget of Php75 billion for the first five years of its implementation. At the end of his term, Noynoy Aquino reported the completion of 56 projects with a total amount of Php50.7 billion. This included the purchase of the expensive FA-50 lead in fighter trainer jets worth US$421.1 million (or Php18 billion) from Korea Aerospace Industries.

When Rodrigo Duterte won the elections in 2016, he publicly criticized the purchase, saying that we cannot use the units in counterinsurgency, and therefore it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. The statement betrayed the real intention of increasing “defense capability” as being more on counterinsurgency rather than on defending national sovereignty. Not only that. As president, Duterte has contradicted himself by pouring more money into the acquisition of additional equipment, even second-hand, only to be involved in mishaps with a high death toll.

In 2018, the Duterte government approved the Php300 billion budget for implementing Horizon II, which was four times bigger than the budget for Horizon I. The defense department planned to purchase with the amount additional aircraft, land vehicles and submarines for various AFP units through multi-year contracts and other contractual agreements. Among the war materiel purchased for the Philippine Air Force (PAF) is the ill-fated S-70i Blackhawk. Polish manufacturer, Polskie Zaklady Lotnicze (PZL), bagged the project with a contract price of Php12.5 billion in 2019. The delivery of the remaining units is yet to be completed later this year, but the accident has put product quality under question.

Despite the increase in the budget of Horizon II, the Duterte government has continued to accept hand-me-downs. Various countries have donated their old war materiel to contribute to the so-called modernization program. After the Marawi crisis in 2017, China and Russia sent rifles and ammunitions to help the Duterte government in its alleged war against terrorism. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force donated to the Philippine Navy five units of patrol planes including spare parts in 2018. South Korea handed down one of its old Pohang-class corvettes (later renamed BRP Conrado Yap) in August 2019 as tensions in territorial disputes escalated. In November of the same year, the Duterte government received two units of a refurbished attack helicopter from the Kingdom of Jordan.

In the final President’s Report to the People, Duterte bragged about the country’s possession of missile warships capable of protecting our seas. To recall, the Php15.7 billion frigate acquisition deal with Hyundai Heavy Industry Co. Ltd. (HHI) underwent a Senate probe in 2018 into the alleged involvement of presidential assistant and personal aide Bong Go in the government’s weapons system selection. The completion of the deal took place last March with the delivery of the second frigate BRP Antonio Luna (the first being BRP Jose Rizal). The frigate acquisition deal is the most expensive purchase of the Duterte government for Horizon II. Ironically still, Duterte’s claim about the country’s defense capability in protecting disputed waters remains in question, given his government’s display of subservience to the continued aggression of China in the West Philippine Sea.

Still second-rate and mercenary

There are still pending acquisitions for Horizon II. But the military or at least the defense department may not be bothered much by the impending change of presidency, unlike other sectors and functions of government. It will continue to get the budget it wants, lest the new commander-in-chief runs the risk of not being supported by his armed forces.

This has been particularly glaring under the Duterte presidency, which, mainly as self-interest, has bought the loyalty of uniformed personnel and generals and carried out militarism, even as the primary form of pandemic response. The defense department is most likely to get an even bigger increase in the budget for Horizon III – the Duterte presidency will make sure of that – and this will come in handy for the Duterte camp as it wiggles back to power.

The “AFP Modernization Program” is just that, not about genuine modernization and protecting our territorial sovereignty, but a label where money support for the military may be poured in, 27 years and counting.