By Martin Sadongdong
Donning a Barong Tagalog, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana surveyed the military equipment and technologies that were featured in a static display at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
It was the 20th of November and the Defense Department was celebrating its 80th founding anniversary.
From rifles, snipers and other high-powered firearms, miniatures of attack helicopters and ships, to advanced systems such as the Air Force’s Virtual Combat Simulator (VCS), Lorenzana checked on each material — taking pride in how far the military has come in its modernization program. He later presented them to President Duterte, the Commander-in-Chief.
In 2019, the Philippine military had its fair share of ups and downs in terms of safeguarding the national security and peace and order while having one of the most under-equipped armed forces in Southeast Asia.
The country was not spared from continued terrorist attacks from Daesh-inspired and local threat groups. It remained on a quest to achieve the seemingly elusive peace with the five-decades old problem on Communist insurgency. It is faced with new and emerging threats from foreign influences — most especially China.
However, General Noel Clement, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff, said the challenges that the country faced in 2019 were turned into “concrete opportunities.”
“The year 2019 has been replete with daunting challenges, which the Armed Forces was able to transform into concrete opportunities,” Clement said.
Modernizing the Philippine military proved to be one of the priorities of President Duterte. Indeed, how can a country protect itself from local and foreign threats if it has no credible Armed Force?
The AFP intends to allocate P25 billion in its proposed P258-billion budget in 2020 primarily for the acquisition of various land, air, and sea assets as part of its Revised AFP Modernization Program dubbed “Horizon.”
Horizon, which has three phases, aims to modernize all branches of the AFP namely the Philippine Army, Philippine Air Force and Philippine Navy. The first phase was implemented from 2013 to 2017, the second is from 2018 to 2022, and the last phase will be from 2023 to 2028.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, AFP spokesperson, said that 22 capability, materiel and technology development (CMTD) projects have been completed under the Horizon 1 as of August 2019. Some 25 CMTD projects and six bases support systems development projects are still in the various stages of procurement process and implementation.
Meanwhile, Zagala said the completion of 76 projects under the Horizon Phase 2 was being expedited to further enhance the Armed Forces’ capabilities for air and maritime defense.
On a brighter note, among the major assets that were delivered this year include the amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), anti-submarine helicopters, Level 3 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cobra attack helicopters, multi-purpose attack crafts, the BRP Conrado Yap, small unit riverine crafts and the AFP Civil Engineering equipment.
The AFP is also expecting the delivery of its pioneer missile-capable frigates, the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna, next year while plans for the acquisition of the country’s first ever submarines are on-going.
Issues with China
The modernization of the AFP will be crucial in defending the country’s maritime territory what with the lingering sea row by the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, where the latter is claiming 80 to 90 percent of the area including the West Philippine Sea, or those areas within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The country was angered with the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in the Recto Bank in June. The lives of the boat’s 21-member crew were put in danger after they were abandoned at sea by the Chinese that rammed them.
It was followed by various reports of uncoordinated passage of Chinese vessels in the Philippine waters. Media reports showed that there were at least 12 incidents of Chinese vessels passing through the Philippine waters without informing the proper authorities. Some of the vessels were attack ships of China’s Coast Guard while others were marine research vessels.
The military also monitored an increase in the number of Chinese fishing boats swarming the territories in the West Philippine Sea.
All these issues challenged the military’s response to foreign threats, but Clement assured the public that the AFP remains committed to protect and defend the country’s territories.
“The AFP continues to monitor and patrol our territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Rise in the eastern seaboard,” he said.
The acquired sea assets are expected to be of big help for the military in patrolling the Philippines’ maritime territory, he added.
The year also saw the rise of suicide bombing which used to be a non-conventional means of terrorist attack in the Philippines.
In 2019, three suicide bombings were recorded by the military — most notably was the June 28 attack involving the first known Filipino suicide bomber who blew himself up with a cohort at the tactical command post of the Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team in Indanan, Sulu. The attack claimed eight lives, including three soldiers and three civilians.
The other cases were the suicide attack involving an Indonesian couple at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu on January 27 that killed 18 people and wounded 82 others; and a female foreigner who detonated a body-worn bomb in Indanan on September 8.
Another case of suicide bombing was recorded on July 31, 2018 when a Moroccan national detonated a bomb inside a white van at a military detachment in Lamitan, Basilan. Ten people died in the incident.
Duterte had ordered the military and police to crush the terrorist groups in the country, particularly the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), before the year ends.
Data from the AFP showed that from January 1 to December 11, 175 ASG rebels have been neutralized by the authorities, 82 of whom surrendered, 70 were killed, while 23 were apprehended.
Meanwhile, 107 Daesh-inspired Maute terrorists, the group that laid siege in Marawi City on 2017, were neutralized: 39 of them were killed, 34 surrendered and 34 were captured.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) also suffered heavy blows as 57 of its members were neutralized: 14 were killed, 41 surrendered and two were captured.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the AFP in its fight against terrorism was the successful rescue of British-Filipino couple Allan and Wilma Hyrons from their ASG captors on December 22. The couple was abducted on October 4.
It was followed by the safe rescue of Indonesian fishermen Maharudin Lunani and Samion Bin Maniue, who were abducted by the ASG on September 22 along with another companion in the waters off Sabah, Malaysia.
The military has also actively worked with Malaysia and Indonesia to curb the issues in the Sulu and Celebes Seas where sea piracy and kidnappings were prevalent, and to prevent the entry and exit of foreign terrorists at the backdoor of the concerned countries.
Communist insurgency, peace talks
Aside from terrorist groups, the AFP also waged a war against communist groups since the collapse of the peace talks between the national government (GRP) and the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army – National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) in 2017.
However, Duterte raised the possibility of reviving the peace talks when he ordered Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to start the informal talks with CPP founder Jose Maria “Joma” Sison earlier this month.
The planned resumption of the peace negotiations were off to a rough start when suspected Communist rebels launched three violent attacks against withdrawing troops in Camarines Norte, Iloilo and Quezon province amid a unilateral ceasefire between the GRP and the CPP-NPA-NDF from December 24, 2019 to January 7, 2020. A soldier was killed while eight others were wounded in the series of attacks.
This year, the AFP had 468 encounters with the Communist groups that also resulted in the dismantling of 12 guerilla fronts across the country, Clement said.
He added that 12 more guerilla fronts will be the subject of their combat operations until March 2020, excluding the period of the holiday truce.
“The rest of the targets will be weakened by then,” Clement said optimistically as he sees an end of the problem on communist insurgency by 2020.
Hopeful in 2020
Looking forward, Lorenzana encouraged the military to continue pursuing excellence in public service while Clement thanked the public for its support to the soldiers and hopes that they will continue to do so in 2020.
“The call to a more effective and efficient Defense sector is imperative in light of the enormous and varied security challenges confronting the nation,” Lorenzana stated.
“As your AFP continues to professionalize, evolve and modernize, your enormous trust and support to the AFP has made us more capable in addressing current and emerging threats to our national security,” Clement said.