Thinking Beyond Politics

Prior to his inauguration on 30 June 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte was expected by many defense analysts and observers thought to follow former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s national security policy of gravitating close to China while overlooking territorial defense and focusing on neutralizing domestic security challenges such as terrorism and insurgencies. The implementation of the long-delayed AFP modernization program had been linked to Duterte’s predecessor Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s agenda of challenging China’s expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea.

In contrast, however, President Duterte’s goal to effect a rapprochement with China could mean that public investments in developing the Philippine military’s territorial defense capabilities would be decreased if not be terminated. From the Aquino administration’s original goal of territorial defense, the Duterte administration’s thrust was to revert back to the old (defense) posture of internal defense, or more appropriately, counter-insurgency operations.

Before his inauguration, Mr. Duterte also declared that he wanted a closer relationship with China and that he would not continue the military modernization program started by his predecessor. Consequently, his early statements indicated that he would not pursue the modernization of the AFP with as much vigor as former President Aquino. President Duterte publicly criticized the Aquino Administration’s decision to procure 12 FA-50 fighter planes from South Korea because he claimed that the aircraft could not be used for counterinsurgency and were not numerically sufficient to challenge China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. He said that the government money spent for the fighter planes instead should have been used to buy helicopters or boats that would pursue the Abu Sayyaf (bandits). For him, internal security problems should be solved first so the country can promote tourism and lure more foreign investment.

However, a few days after his inauguration, his administration slowly changed its tune on AFP modernization.

Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana assured the AFP and the Filipino public that the Duterte administration would pursue the modernization of the Philippine military. Secretary Lorenzana stressed that territorial defense is one of the priorities of the Duterte administration because “it is very important as we need to protect our territories against encroachment by other parties.” He then added that the 15-year AFP modernization program will continue as scheduled. He, however, clarified that there will be some “redirection” as the Duterte administration is determined to decisively deal with criminality, especially the Abu Sayyaf bandits, as it gives the Philippines a bad name due to a series of kidnappings of Malaysians and Indonesian sailor off the Sulu Sea.

In the aftermath of the 12 July Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) favorable award to the Philippines in its case against China in the South China Sea dispute, Secretary Lorenza highlighted the urgent need for the Philippines to upgrade its Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force to prevent other countries from encroaching on its territory, especially the maritime ones.

In the same month, President Duterte assured troops of the Sixth Infantry Division that he will continue the Aquino administration’s efforts to modernize the AFP. President Duterte declared that “there will even be no refocusing of the modernization thrust. We will only adjust our priorities (to internal defense).” Consequently, despite his earlier statements about his preference for smaller ships and lighter aircraft for counter-insurgency operations, President Duterte eventually gave the go signal for the acquisition of military material for territorial defense that were put in the pipeline during the Aquino administration.

The Duterte administration is making sure that it is meeting AFP’s expectation that it would continue to finance its modernization program that was started and given priority by the Aquino administration from 2011 to 2016. It increased the agency’s 2017 defense budget by 15% from the 2016 level. More significantly, it also augmented the annual supplemental allotment for the AFP’s acquisition of military equipment from P15 billion ($300 million) to P25 billion ($500 million), reflecting the administration’s intention of accelerating the Philippine military’s modernization program. It is also introducing new administrative measures to accelerate the procurement of new military equipment given the significant delays the defense department and the AFP experienced in the acquisition of big-ticket items such as the two guided-missile frigates, 12 fighter planes, long-range patrol aircraft and close-air support aircraft.

Indeed, President Duterte was putting his money where his mouth is when he pledged to the graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) that his administration will provide radar, support, patrol, and assault vehicles as well as new surveillance and fighter aircraft in the next two to three years to be used to secure the country’s borders.

Under the First Horizon of the AFP modernization program, the Aquino administration spent P85 billion (roughly $ 1.7 billion) for the purchase of combat utility and attack helicopters, frigates, armored vehicles, rifles, and cargo and transport aircraft.

Under the Second Horizon, the Duterte administration declared that it would allocate P125 billion (roughly $2.25 billion) for the acquisition of more equipment for territorial defense such as helicopters, fighter aircraft, multi-role fighters, missiles and radar systems.

However, since President Duterte took office in 2016, defense officials indicated that there would be some changes to the priority list given the new administration’s new agenda.

Along with the planned acquisition of military hardware for territorial defense, the AFP would also buy more fast attack crafts and drones capable of addressing asymmetric threats such as terrorism and insurgencies as well as new assault rifles and other force protection equipment for individual soldiers.

In mid-2017, the administration’s defense policy was tested when elements of the several Islamic militant groups claiming links with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the predominantly Muslim populated city of Marawi.

For the AFP, defeating the ISIS militants in Marawi City as soon as possible became an imperative because a lengthy siege would attract more militants to Mindanao to reinforce their fellow fighters in the city or be deployed in other parts of the island.

Unfortunately, in the early period of the battle, the militants found it easier than expected to hold out in the center of the city.

The AFP — trained and used in counterinsurgency operations in the jungle — proved incapable in urban warfare against Islamic militants determined to die for their cause.

Trained for jungle warfare and used in operating in small-units, government forces have been unable to dislodge the militants despite deploying ground troops, and armored personnel carriers, and aerial bombard of the city.

Eventually, the AFP adopted a strategy of destroying large portion of Marawi City in order to save it. The Philippine Air Force (PAF) used its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to bombard the city. Several units of the Philippine Army and Marines, supported by artillery and armored personnel carriers, conducted a grueling and bloody face-to-face urban warfare against determined and well-armed militants.

In late October, Marawi City was liberated by the AFP after the deaths of the insurgents’ three key leaders.

The five-month battle for Marawi City tested the Duterte administration’s evolving defense policy.

Despite limited improvements in its territorial defense capabilities, the AFP remains one the region’s weakest military as Philippine military fought an uphill urban battle against local militants reinforced by seasoned fighters from the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The battle of Marawi City revealed the three challenges to the Duterte administration. First is the AFP’s lack of capabilities in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Second, despite the increase in defense budget since 2010, the AFP still lacks basic infantry equipment for conventional warfare like bullet-proof vests, helmets, night vision goggles, bullets, and tanks since resources has been diverted for the acquisitions of frigates, lead-in fighters, and other equipment for the Air Force and the Navy.

And finally, the occupation of Marawi City by ISIS-linked militants showed the complexity of the shift in the balance between internal and external security calculation that has long been an important determinant in the AFP modernization program.

On the one hand, the Philippine military could not divert all its attention and resources on territorial defense as domestic insurgents groups have showed resilience. On the other hand, it could not ignore external security challenges as territorial disputes have been intensified because of the regional states’ growing wealth and defense acquisitions and heightened nationalism. The AFP must prepare for both internal security operations and territorial defense since fighting and neutralizing threats from multiple fronts has become its main task in the 21st century.


Renato Cruz De Castro, Ph.D. is a Trustee of the Stratbase ADR Institute.