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Philippines seeks U.S., Europe help with military upgrade

By Rene P. Acosta
Philippine Air Force SF 260 FH planes fly in a diamond formation as part of a training flight on May 3, 2012. Military and government officials are moving forward with plans to modernize the military. [Reuters]

Philippine Air Force SF 260 FH planes fly in a diamond formation as part of a training flight on May 3, 2012. Military and government officials are moving forward with plans to modernize the military. [Reuters]

MANILA – Regional disputes over the South China Sea and security challenges posted by domestic threats continue, but the Philippines Department of Defense is modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines [AFP].

The Defense Assessment and Acquisitions Systems program includes at least 138 projects for the military, among them purchasing modern weapons and equipment, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at the initiative’s launch.

Contracts for the delivery of big ticket items such as tanks, planes, missile-guided vessels, anti-submarine ships and fighter jets should be signed by July or November at the latest, Gazmin said.

The military needs to arm a credible force to meet its challenges, both internal and external, the defense chief said. Gazmin said he hopes to discourage the frequent intrusions of Chinese vessels into the country’s claimed territory in the South China Sea.

President Benigno Aquino III has standing orders for military commanders to defend the country’s interest in the region.

The upgrade and modernization program should bring the military on par with the armies of its neighboring countries in terms of capability and effectiveness, said Lt. Gen. Jessie Dellosa, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff.

“This is also timely … as we are now focusing our efforts in addressing regional security concerns with our neighbors,” he said.

The Navy had continuously enhanced its capabilities during the past years by organizing, training and equipping its staff under the “Fleet-Marine Team” to accomplish its mission, Rear Admiral Jose Luis Alano said.

“The advent of defense acquisitions system realizes the modernization of the Navy in terms of capabilities. We see this as a tool to level up naval hardware which is very crucial in the performance of our mandate,” he said. Air Force leaders also see the need for more modern equipment.

“By 2016, we shall have expanded our airspace and maritime domain awareness. … Modernization has been a long cherished dream of the Philippine Air Force and now we are finally in the threshold of realizing this dream,” Air Force vice commander Maj. Gen. Renato Lorenzo Sanchez said.

Congress funding

The lack of funding frustrated efforts by past administrations to modernize the military.

The Department of National Defense lacks funds to bankroll the projects estimated to cost at least $162 million through 2020. Gazmin said congress approved a Multi-Year Obligation Agreement [MYOA] to pay the bills.

Gilberto Teodoro pushed for the agreement in 2009 during his term as Secretary of National Defense.

Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales also considered the agreement to modernize the military in 2010. While unsuccessful, he did manage to sign a contract for the delivery of a multi-role vessel from South Korea.

Gazmin said the country could no longer afford to delay its defense upgrade given its ongoing operational plan to neutralize or end all major domestic threats and the standing territorial challenge in the South China Sea.

“It’s a combination of our internal security operations [ISO] and our territorial problem which became active last year, so we have to address that,” he said.

Last year, while Gazmin was meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guang Lie, in Manila, the military discovered markers and buoys placed by China in territories claimed by the Philippines.

President Aquino, who took office in 2010, has made upgrading the military one of his priorities.

Aquino poured 16.852 billion pesos [$396 million] into military upgrades from July 2010 to December 2011. Previously, the military received 33.596 billion pesos during a 15-year period or an average of 2.24 billion a year from 1995 to 2010.

Chinese incursions

Meanwhile, the government continues to record intrusions by Chinese ships into the country’s declared territory in the South China Sea.

The Aquino administration lodged a diplomatic protest through the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA] against China over sightings of its two vessels and a People's Liberation Army Navy ship off the Escoda [Sabina] Shoal last December.

Philippines claims Escoda Shoal as part of the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The area is well within the “Philippine sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction,” according to the DFA.

Both sea and air patrols were increased in the area and in the other islands that have been claimed by the Philippines as a result, said AFP Western Command spokesman Maj. Neil Estrella.

U.S., top European defense manufacturers supply equipment

Gazmin and an assessment team flew to Italy to seek military hardware to purchase. Teams are expected to make similar trips to Spain, France, United Kingdom, the United States and South Korea.

While in Italy, Gazmin signed the “Implementing Arrangement” with his Italian counterpart, Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola, covering the procurement of defense materials and equipment from the country.

The Philippines is looking to purchase medium lift aircraft, coast watch system radar, multi-role combat aircraft and long range patrol aircraft.

"Our primary goal is to explore all avenues for us to really address the needs of our defense establishment, in line with our established systems and procedures," Gazmin said.

The AFP has 18 basic trainer aircraft from Alenia Aermacchi, an Italian company known for its design, production and support of military training aircraft.

The Navy acquired a Hamilton class Coast Guard cutter from the United States on May 13, 2011, which became its biggest ship. It wants two more similar ships.

Greater Philippines-U.S. military partnership, cooperation

Gazmin continues to battle for the increased presence and greater activity of U.S. soldiers in the country, particularly through joint training exercises, subject to the conditions of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The presence of the U.S. in the region should serve as a stabilizing factor and an antidote to the threat that is being spurred by the South China Sea ownership dispute, he said.

The presence of U.S. ships in Philippines’ boundaries may help deter further territorial violations by China, Gazmin said.


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