By Ben Cal

MANILA (PNA) –- Time was when the Philippines was second to none in Southeast Asia in terms of military muscle. Filipinos enjoyed that period of military superiority immediately after World War II until the early 1970s.

Today, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) found itself dismally in the lowest echelon among neighboring Asian nations.

At the height of its glory days, the AFP had more than 50 jet-fighter interceptors – the F-5A/B and F-8 Crusaders, not to mention the 140 “Huey” helicopters, 35 attack helicopters, 30 trainer jets, 12 C-130 “Hercules” planes, an array of other aircraft in the inventory of the Philippine Air Force (PAF).

The Philippine Navy (PN) was equally replete with warships and gunboats acquired from the United States at the end of the Pacific War. Likewise, the Philippine Army also got modern tanks and armored vehicles.

Over the years, however, wear and tear had crept in that these armaments had become obsolete.

The Department of National Defense (DND) and the AFP had anticipated that reality that they made a blueprint to modernize the military as early as 1980 by acquiring new defense equipment, particularly new jet fighters and warships.

In 1989, PAF got two squadrons of S-211 jets from Italy, followed by a squadron of MD500/520 attack helicopters bought from the US, all brand new.

The Air Force recommended to Congress to acquire a squadron of F-16 jet fighter-interceptors or similar aircraft to replace the ageing F-5A/B jet.

During its heydays, PAF jet fighter pilots were up in the air shortly after a siren blared that an intruding plane was entering Philippine airspace without permission.

The F-5 pilots, armed with sidewinder air-to-air missiles and 20mm machine guns were quick to intercept the incoming unidentified aircraft to identify itself.

The Navy also did the same, ready to challenge any foreign ship that entered the country’s territorial waters when it had many plenty of ships at their disposal. But this is no longer the case as the Air Force has no more jet fighter interceptors to challenge in mid-air incoming hostile aircraft entering into Philippine airspace.

And the Navy whose floating assets are deeply depleted has no capability to patrol the country’s 36,000 nautical miles of territorial waters, particularly the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratly chain of islands in the West Philippine Sea, where it is believed to have a huge untapped oil deposits.

In 1995, Congress passed Republic Act 7898 known as the AFP Modernization Law, allocating P331 billion for the military to acquire new assets, especially for the country’s territorial defense.

Then President Fidel V. Ramos, former defense secretary and AFP chief of staff, signed RA 7898 into law the same year. Implementation of the modernization program is spread over 15 years.

Section 3 of the law states that the AFP modernization program shall be implemented in accordance with the following objectives:

(a) To develop its capability to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and to secure the national territory from all forms of intrusion and encroachment;

(b) To develop its capability to assist civilian agencies in the preservation of the national patrimony, including the country’s living and nonliving marine, submarine, mineral, forest and other natural resources located within its territory and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ);

(c) To enhance its capability to fulfill its mandate to protect the Filipino people not only from armed threats but from the ill effects of life-threatening and destructive consequences of natural and man-made disasters and calamities, including typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, major accidents in far-flung or inaccessible terrain or at sea and from all forms of ecological damage;

(d) To improve its capability to assist other agencies in the enforcement of domestic and foreign policies as well as international covenants against piracy, white slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, hijacking of aircraft and seacraft and the transport of toxic and other ecologically-harmful substances taking place in or through Philippine territory;

(e) To enhance its capability to assist the Philippine National Police in law enforcement and internal security operations;

(f) To enhance its capability to fulfill the country’s international commitments; and

(g) To develop its capability to support national development.

The modernization program shall also “develop the AFP into a compact, efficient, responsive and modern force with the capability to engage in conventional and/or unconventional warfare, disaster relief and rescue operations, and contribute to economic development and other nontraditional military roles.”

But, 16 years after the AFP Modernization Program was signed into law, the AFP has barely taken off.

Maj. Gen. Jose Tony E. Villarete, AFP deputy chief of staff for plans (J-5), said that since the modernization plan was set into motion, P30 billion had been released out of the total P331 billion.

As a consequence, the AFP found itself in a quandary of funds since only small items can be bought, considering the high cost of military hardware in the world market which is in U.S. dollars, Villerete said.

“The AFP will just make do of whatever amount the Department of Budget would release,” Villerete added.

Villerete said “the P30 billion could not even buy one jet fighter which cost US$ 30 to US$ 35 million, bare, meaning the armaments and other avionics are not included.”

“The total cost of one jet interceptor complete with the basic weapons is US$ 50 million,” he said.

AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo SL Oban Jr. said it’s a shocking reality, but, since 2005, the Philippines has no jet fighters as its first line of defense to protect the country from external attack.

The last batch of F-5 “Freedom Fighter” war jets made their last fight six years ago because there are no more spare parts available in the open market. Oban said this is a predicament of the Air Force.

“Our pilots have no more fighter jets to scramble unlike before,” said Oban, himself a jet pilot, who knows the importance of air power.

With no interceptors, PAF pilots no longer have to “scramble”, a term used by fighter pilots to scamper to their planes once a siren is sounded to alert them that hostile aircraft are about to intrude into the country’s airspace.

Aside from lack of fighter planes, the PAF also needs modern radar system.

Oban said the 1995 AFP Modernization Plan hit a snag following the debilitating 1997 Asian financial crisis. He said that during the planning to modernize the AFP, the exchange rate was only P20 to one U.S. dollar.

“In fact, we anticipated that, by the time we ordered new planes, the exchange rate would be one U.S. dollar to P30, but we we’re wrong,” Oban said, adding that the rate jumped to a staggering one dollar to more than P50.

Another obstacle that delayed the AFP modernization was in 2000 when the military had to shift its strategy from internal to external defense following the outbreak of new hostilities in southern Philippines when the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) declared an all-out war.

Oban said this prompted the AFP to shift back to internal defense to contain the MILF offensive.

Despite this long delay, Oban said the AFP will continue its modernization program to upgrade its capability so it can carry its mandate to protect the sovereignty of the country.

To be delivered in November, this year, are eight combat helicopters the PAF has ordered from Poland. Also to be delivered are additional jet trainer planes.

The Philippine Navy has just acquired one Jacinto Class vessel that would boost its capability to patrol the country’s territorial waters.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has also acquired a cutter that would help patrol the country’s sea borders. Oban also said that the guidance of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is to acquire multi-role fighter planes and helicopters.

He said the AFP prefers to buy brand-new jet fighters rather than second-hand.

Oban said the delivery of the aircraft will take at least three years.

When asked what type of jet fighters the Air Force would want, Oban said that is still being studied by the PAF. There are a variety of jet fighters available in the world market such as the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18, all US-made; Kfir jet made by Israel; Tornado jet developed by Britain, Germany and Italy; and the Russian Sokhoi jet fighter, among others.

The announcement recently by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that the government will allocate P40-billion for the modernization program of the AFP over the next five years starting in 2012, is a welcome development.

President Aquino said the allocation of additional funds would help boost the military’s defense capability.

“We will have to face acquisition of equipment. Definitely, the P40 billion is just really for immediate requirements. We’ll be coming up with a list of priority acquisition, and this has to be driven by strategy,” the President said.

The amount is close to the P42.13 billion the AFP has asked Congress for the modernization of the military for the next five years with the Navy getting the biggest allocation amounting to P14.49 billion, followed by the Air Force, P14.36 billion, and the Philippine Army, P11.66 billion.

The amount P1.62 billion is for AFP General Headquarters and support units for the same period.

AFP vice chief of staff Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu said the modernization program for the Army will include the purchase of new equipment for 12 battalion and three new mechanized battalions.

The P42-billion modernization program will be for the purchase of 110 units of infantry fighting vehicles, 4,464 units of night fighting system, 8,103 units of assault rifles, 8,103 units of force protection equipment, grenade launchers, trucks, and radios for the Army.

The Air Force’s shopping lists are four units of combat helicopters, four units of surface attack aircraft and lead-in fighter trainers, six units of close air support aircraft, one long-range patrol aircraft and one air surveillance radar.

The Navy is planning to acquire two offshore patrol vessels, a strategic sealift vessel, a command and control communication system, two units of multi-purpose helicopters, a bases support system, a Coast Guard watch system and an anti-bunker and tank system.

The modernization will also fund other programs such as security, mobility, information and weapons systems, communication networks, rehabilitation of military structures and dental and medical equipment.

Last year, the Philippine Army acquired 1,355 body armor devices and 50,000 Kevlar helmets to give ample protection to its forces during combat operations.

As the country’s ground forces, the Army is always at the forefront in defending the country and in pursuing rebel forces and terror groups, thus the need for body armor.

Body armor and Kevlar helmets are the standard equipment used by American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the war against terror.

With these two new equipment, Army troopers will increase their protection and survivability in combat. â–