By Zachary Abuza
The Philippine economy has been one of the fastest-growing in Asia in recent years, and if there is ever a time for Manila to invest in boosting its military capability, it is now. The Philippines has born the brunt of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, with standoffs on the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, and most recently a land reclamation project on Johnson Atoll. Yet, given decades of neglect, recent modernization efforts by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) look pretty anemic.
President Benigno Aquino in 2011 announced plans to allocate more resources to upgrading the military by establishing the AFP Modernization Act Trust Fund, and reaffirmed them in the 2012 Revised Modernization Program. In May 2013, President Aquino announced a $1.8-billion military modernization program; these funds were in addition to the normal defense budget, which largely goes to pay personnel costs. This money has been earmarked for new equipment that would help protect the archipelagic country’s maritime domain.
Philippine defense expenditures have risen marginally to $2.9 billion in 2012 from $2.3 billion in 2009, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But as a percentage of gross domestic product, they have actually fallen from an already low 1.3 to 1.2 percent. For the most part, the Philippines continues to rely on U.S. military assistance, subsidized sales, and hand-me-downs.
After it retired its fleet of Vietnam War-era F5 fighters in 2005, Manila only recently began to develop its air capacity. In March, the AFP announced the purchase of $524.7-million worth of aircraft from South Korea and Canada. This included 12 FA-50 fighter jets from Korea Aerospace Industries which will be delivered by 2017 and eight Bell 412 combat utility helicopters from Canada.
The AFP has just allocated $364.8 million, the last tranche of funds from the Modernization Act Trust Fund, for new aircraft. The Philippines is currently looking to purchase two helicopters capable of anti-submarine warfare and two new long-range maritime patrol aircraft. It is expected to allocate $113 million for six close air support aircraft to replace the aging fleet of 40 OV-10 Broncos.
The core of the Philippine naval fleet consists of seven Chamsuri class patrol vessels bought from the South Korean Navy between 1995 and 2006. The United States in 2012 and 2013 transferred two decommissioned Hamilton class Coast Guard frigates to the Philippine Navy, which remain the largest and most modern vessels in the fleet. In early 2014, the Philippine government requested a third Hamilton class frigate from the United States, raising concerns among some that the money would have been better spent on ordering new patrol vessels from South Korea.
The Philippine Navy is expected to acquire two new frigates, worth $400 million, for its fleet. The Japanese government in 2013 announced plans to give the Philippines 10 patrol vessels, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated Tokyo’s pledge to assist the Philippine Coast Guard at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue. Future purchases include two or three fast vessels for coastal patrols and eight amphibious assault vehicles. An Indonesian firm won the bid in January to procure two sealift vessels, worth$87 million, and the South Korean government has donated a landing craft and a Pohang class corvette in June.
Other arms purchases since 2013 included 28 M113 APCs from Israel, five Bell-205 helicopters from Germany, eight helicopters from Poland, and 25 Humvees from the United States.
The State Department requested an extra $14.5 million in Foreign Military Financing assistance for the Philippines for 2014, up from $25.5 million in 2013 for a total of $40 million. The additional funding was earmarked to help the Philippines improve its maritime capabilities, which is also a key U.S. priority in Southeast Asia. The United States has also earmarked $40 million in global security contingency funding to help the Philippines improve maritime security and surveillance through the establishment of a National Coast Watch Center.
Meanwhile, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed with the United States on April 28 will allow for the transfer or sale of excess U.S. equipment, but it does not provide direct aid or military assistance to the Philippines. Nonetheless, a more firmly anchored U.S. presence in Southeast Asia will likely boost the extremely limited capabilities of the AFP.
Dr. Zachary Abuza is a Professor of Political Science at Simmons College Boston, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.