MANILA, Philippines - The long overdue completion of the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) finds the military in quandary today without a single jet fighter to protect the country's airspace and an antiquated navy unable to secure the nation's vast territorial waters.
Military officials interviewed by the Philippines News Agency expressed dismay over the predicament of the AFP with virtually no external defense to speak of No Fighter Jet To Protect PH at present, a far cry from the days of old when the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the Philippine Navy (PN) were second to none in Asia, except Japan at the end of World War II until the 1970s.
At present, Philippine airspace is vulnerable to intrusion as the Air Force, the nation's first line of defense, has no fighter jets in its arsenal to intercept hostile aircraft entering into the country's airspace after the PAF decommissioned its aging F-5 interceptors in 2005.
The PAF has to be content with its few remaining S-211 jet trainers as "substitute interceptors" which cannot be compared to the supersonic fighter planes such as the F-22 "Raptor" F-14 Phantom; F-15 "Eagle"; F-16 "Falcon"; F-18 "Hornet"; Mig-29 Tornado GR4; Mi¬rage 2000 Sokhoi S-37, and the F-21 Kfir.
The failure of the AFP to modernize the Air Force and Navy is now be¬ing felt with the intrusion of Chinese fishing vessels at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal which is within the Philippines' territorial waters but claimed by the Chinese as theirs.
"If we had a credible military, this could not happen," military officials said in unison when asked by this writer.
Despite Congress passing the 1995 AFP Modernization Law of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) allocating P331 billion spread in 15 years, the PAF is still wanting of new jet fighters to replace the decommissioned F-5s.
The AFP, particularly the Air Force, has been pushing since the mid-1980s to acquire the F-16 jet fighters or the Mirage 2000 as re¬placement of the F-5s but this has remained an elusive dream to date.
From the 1950s until early 1970s, the PAF was a force to reckon with, second to none in Southeast Asia in terms of military muscle.
Today, the 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 Phil¬ippine Air Force (PAF).
The Philippine Navy 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.
Today, the Navy is badly in bad shape as it tries to maintain ageing warships some of which are more than 50 years old.
Worse, the Navy has no missile gunboats compared to other neighboring countries which have acquired such sophisticated armament.
Yet, the Navy has to patrol the Philippines' vast coastlines which are twice as long as that of the United States. With the shortage of ships, the Navy cannot do it as it is just impossible.
The Navy has been clamoring for new ships to replace its decommissioned floating assets.
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. The DND and AFP recommended for the acquisition of new defense equipment, particularly new jet fighters and warships.
In 1989, PAF got two squadrons of S-211 jet trainers from Italy, followed by a squadron of MD500/520 attack helicopters bought from the US, all brand-new.
At that time, the Air Force reiterated its recommendation to Congress to acquire a squadron of F-16 jet fighter-interceptors or similar aircraft to replace the ageing F-5A/B jet acquired in 1965. But the government did not give priority for the acquisition of new fighter-jet intercep¬tors due to lack of funds.
The Philippines depended heav¬ily on the United States to supply the AFP with military hardware since after World War II.
In exchange for that, the Ameri¬cans had a string of military bases in the Philippines such as Clark Air Base in Pampanga where the 13th US Air Force was based, and Subic Naval Base in Zambales, the biggest US military installation in the world outside the United States.
In the early 1980s, the US agreed to pay rentals for the use of its mili¬tary bases in the Philippines in addi¬tion to supplying the AFP of military hardware totaling US$ 500 annually until 1991 when the Philippines-US Military Bases Agreement (MBA) was abrogated.
As a consequence, the Americans dismantled its military installations in the country.
In the meantime, the AFP mod¬ernization program suffered a setback due to lack of funds.
With this predicament, the modernization program was again shelved indefinitely. The Air Force and Navy suffered the brunt. Both have to contend with ageing jet-fighters and warships with no re¬placement to date.
Former Air Force chief retired Lt. Gen. Loven Abadia recalled that during the heydays of the AFP, pi¬lots of the PAF's F-5 jets, armed with sidewinder air-to-air missiles and 20mm machine guns, were up in the air immediately to challenge any air¬craft entering the country's airspace without permission.
That is not the case today be¬cause the Air Force has no super¬sonic jet fighter-interceptors in its arsenal.
The Navy was also quick to re¬spond to intercept foreign vessels that entered the country's territorial waters.
At present, the Navy has no ca¬pability 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 an estimated US$ 26.3 trillion of hydrocarbon deposits are still un¬tapped.
In 1995, Congress passed Repub¬lic Act No. 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, a former defense secretary and AFP chief of staff, signed R.A. 7898 into law the same year. Implementation of the modernization program was spread over 15 years ending in 2011.
The modernization program shall also "develop the AFP into a com¬pact, efficient, responsive and mod¬ern with the capability to engage in conventional and/or unconventional warfare, disaster relief and rescue operations, and contribute to eco¬nomic development and other non¬traditional military roles."
But 16 years after the AFP Modernization Program was signed into law, the AFP has barely taken off, if at all.
Before the ambitious program could take off, the 1997 Asian eco¬nomic crisis erupted that greatly affected the modernization plan. To date only P30 billion had been re¬leased out of the total P331 billion.
As a consequence, the AFP was short of funds as only small items can be bought of the measly amount, considering the high cost of military hardware.
The AFP will just make do of whatever amount the Department of Budget (DBM) would release.
"The P30-billion could not even buy one jet fighter which costs US$ 30 to US$ 35 million, bare, meaning the armaments and other avionics are not included," said Maj. Gen. Tony Villerete, commanding general of the 3rd Air Division based in Zamboanga City.
"The total cost of one jet interceptor complete with the basic weapons is US$50 million," Villarete added.
It's a shocking reality the AFP has to contend with.
The last batch of F-5 "Freedom Fighter" war jets made their last flight seven years ago because there were no more spare parts available in the open market.