Every budget year, our police and military officials practically have to beg Congress for funds to modernize their weaponry and equipment. And yet, there is a law mandating modernization of the military.
Sadly, the ongoing modernization for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and soon for the Philippine National Police (PNP) is always under the mercy of SAF, or Subject to Availability of Funds.
I learned about this other “meaning” of SAF from former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan when we had him as guest in Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Luneta Hotel a few weeks ago. We discussed the Mamasapano incident where 44 troopers from the PNP’s elite Special Action Force, or SAF for short, were killed.
In the botched Oplan Exodus, a huge number of high-powered firearms and newly issued Glock handguns, night-vision goggles, bullet-proof vests and other modern equipment of the 44 fallen SAF were taken away in the raid. The Muslim rebels have returned only a few of these firearms and equipment to the PNP, some of them with missing parts. Many more SAF weaponry and equipment have remained unaccounted for up to now.
Losing these government-issued weapons, firearms and other equipment during battles and offensive operations like the SAF’s Mamasapano raid, however, is part of the normal losses in the accounting and inventory of arsenal in both the PNP and the AFP. But still these losses cost taxpayers’ money funding the police and military modernization.
In the case of the PNP, our police establishment depends solely on national government budget and allocations from local government units (LGUs). That is why retired police-generals turned congressmen such as ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Samuel Pagdilao, Pangasinan Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil and Antipolo Rep. Romeo Acop filed the proposed PNP Modernization bill now pending before the 16th Congress.
At least for the AFP, they have real estate properties where various military camps are located across the country. Under the AFP Modernization Law, several of these military camps were disposed of to finance partly its modernization program through these years. This was precisely the subject matter of the Senate public hearing last Wednesday.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee was supposed to hold a public hearing on alleged irregularities in the acquisition of secondhand 50-year-old helicopters that were purchased under the AFP Modernization Law. The probe was sought on the instance of opposition Senators Jinggoy Estrada and his half-brother JV Ejercito.
Ejercito earlier filed a resolution calling for the Senate inquiry to get to the bottom of the AFP’s purchase of “antiquated” UH-1D choppers from an allegedly favored bidder. The P1.25-billion contract was awarded to the joint venture of Rice Aircraft Services Inc. and Eagle Copters Ltd. in December 2013.
However, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP chief of staff Gen. Pio Catapang invoked national security interest to argue against a public hearing on the military’s defense capability matters. Upon their urgent request, administration ally Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, Blue Ribbon chairman, decided to hold instead an executive session, or behind closed doors and no media coverage allowed.
Interviewed after the closed-door Senate hearing, Defense assistant secretary Patrick Velez told reporters the AFP justified the questioned procurement, citing they had no choice but to purchase secondhand helicopters because of the “huge capability gap” in the military.
According to Velez, the AFP spent only up to P58 million for each refurbished chopper, while a new one would have cost them P800 million. Velez disclosed to Senate reporters eight of 21 helicopters have been delivered and the AFP is now using them. However, he said, the purchase order for the rest of the choppers was terminated after the suppliers were not able to deliver on time.
But both Gazmin and Catapang were surprisingly more articulate and vocal in their staunch request for the 16th Congress to provide more funds to the AFP modernization program when they appeared in another Senate hearing held yesterday. It was a full-blown public hearing that looked into what the Defense Department and the AFP have been doing so far amid the reported reclamation and dredging activities of China in disputed territories of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Senate committee on national defense and security chaired by another administration ally Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV led the inquiry into the issue based on the resolution that he filed last month. A separate resolution was also filed by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago calling for an inquiry into the activities of China.
While Gazmin and Catapang requested for an executive session so as not to publicize details of the military’s capability, they, however, freely chorused about the need for Congress to provide bigger budgetary support to AFP. They ask for more taxpayers’ money to enable them buy more modern ships and planes to help boost the military’s territorial defense capability.
At one point of the Senate hearing, Guingona asked a rather stupid question: “Can the military be relieved of disaster duties?” To his credit, Catapang made a wise reply: “We welcome that arrangement but we are the muscle of Office of Civil Defense.” This is precisely the reason why the Defense Department co-chairs the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, your Honors.
During the Senate hearing, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia cited South China Sea territorial dispute is the single, biggest national security concern of the Philippines. But who does not know about it?
Garcia echoed the calls made by Gazmin and Catapang on the need for the government to invest at least P26 billion a year to meet our country’s defense requirements. They estimated this amount as enough to modernize the AFP to continuously upgrade the military’s territorial defense capability.
But when opposition senators question how they have been spending previously allocated budget for AFP modernization, our defense and military officials invoke national interest to cover up the corruption trail that may go all the way up to approving authorities.
Even if modernizing AFP and PNP is under the mercy of SAF – corruption could still find its way.