When his term ends in 2022, President Duterte said at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) graduation ceremony last Sunday, he wants a strong Philippine military force as his legacy to the country.
Thus far, the Duterte administration has been noted for its anti-drugs campaign in which thousands have been killed as the nation found that the problem was bigger than had earlier been realized. It is now moving strongly into economic development, led by an infrastructure program “Build, Build, Build” that is also expected to provide employment to hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.
But at the PMA graduation rites, it was his desire to leave a strong Armed Forces of the Philippines that he spoke of.
The Philippines today is way behind most of its Southeast Asian neighbors in military strength. Indonesia is No. 1 in the region, according to a “Global Firepower Index,” followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. The Philippines is only No. 6, followed by Singapore, Cambodia, and Laos.
Earlier in 2015, a comparative study of Southeast Asian military modernization made by the Foreign Policy Research Institute listed Vietnam as having 110 fighter planes, compared to Indonesia’s 68, Malaysia’s 65, and the Philippines’ 12. Among Southeast Asian navies, Indonesia led with 33 ships and two submarines, followed by Vietnam with 14 ships and five subs, Malaysia with 14 ships and two subs. The Philippines had seven ships and no submarine.
It seems the Philippines had not given much attention to strengthening its armed forces, relying on its mutual defense treaty with the United States. Under this treaty, the US is committed to defend the Philippines in case of an attack on its territory as well as on islands on its Pacific side, but is silent on any attack on any island claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea.
In 1995, during the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos, Congress enacted Republic Act 7898, the AFP Modernization Act, with R50 billion appropriated for the first five-year phase of the 15-year program, but funding was stopped by the 1997 Asia financial crisis. Succeeding administrations neglected the program until it expired in 2010.
We have today a Revised AFP Modernization Program whose first phase was from 2013 to 2017. We are now in the second phase or Second Horizon from 2018 to 2022. It is this program that President Duterte referred to in his PMA graduation address. “I would want that before I get out of the presidency,” he said, “I would have left behind a strong Armed Forces and Philippine National Police, simply because the troubles we are now facing will not disappear within the next four to seven to ten years.”
The Philippines today faces security problems posed by the Islamic State-inspired groups such as the Mautes which sought to take Marawi City and the New People’s Army with its decades-old Communist rebellion. The President did not cite the country’s dispute with China in the South China Sea, hoping that this can be settled peacefully through a proposed Code of Conduct, but it would help if we had stronger air and maritime security forces to look after our interests in the seas around us – and inspire greater respect from other nations.
The country is now steadily building up its forces under the Second Horizon of the Revised AFP Modernization Program, the President told the PMA graduates. It has already acquired fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, arms and ammunition from South Korea and other countries. It has just acquired surveillance clones from the US. It plans to buy guided missile systems from Israel. And it plans to have its first submarine before 2020.
All these are in the AFP Modernization Plan that we are now carrying out. It may well be the greatest legacy that President Duterte will leave the country at the end of his term.