Government News Analysis

Military overhaul: urgent

Philippine military troops in Marawi
Government troops are seen during an assault on insurgents from the so-called Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, in Marawi City, southern Philippines May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

If the Philippines doesn’t throw its plans to modernise the country’s military into a higher gear, and soon, its effectiveness as a fighting force will diminish even further. Already widely perceived as one of Asia’s feeblest militaries, historic under-spending had threatened to make it virtually redundant. But although that issue has been partly addressed – in his 2017 budget President Rodrigo Duterte increased defence spending by 17% to PHP137.2 billion – so far there are few signs of any comprehensive overhaul.

Traditionally, the Philippines had been setting aside around 1% of its gross national product for national defence – half the Southeast Asian average of 2%. The present administration’s aim is to get that up to around 2.5%.

Plainly though, given the immediate challenges which the country faces – ongoing and mounting conflicts with Islamist terror groups in the south and a resurgent communist New Peoples Army across other parts of the archipelago; and they’re just the internal threats – this much needed overhaul needs to start taking shape.

Despite what successive administrations seemed to have believed, defence can’t be done on the cheap. Most of the signs are that the present government accepts that. They understand that an effective fighting force need good, reliable modern equipment; and that costs money. Hand-outs and hand-me-downs from friends and neighbours are all well and good, but they can never plug the massive hole from which the Philippine military currently suffers.

The administration of former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino started to address this problem: in 2013 it passed the Armed Forces Modernization Act in an effort to boost military spending which had suffered from an underinvestment going back decades – probably for the best part of half a century. In his last budget, he set aside PHP25 billion specifically to aid this effort.

The long-term plan under the goals of the Act is to make the Philippines a “strategic regional player” by 2028. Right now though, that looks like a remote hope.

Duterte and his National Defence chief, Delfin Lorenzana, are under no doubt how critical this policy is – a belief that will have been further endorsed over the past month as they watch their military struggle with retaking Marawi City in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao (photo) from a relatively small Islamist terror group – the Maute – which has dug in for the long haul.

The point is, if the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can’t subdue a small terror group in one southern city, how will they be able to handle a large, well-equipped and well-resourced one such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which has already established cooperation agreements with local Islamists and has started to put in place its logistical infrastructure?

This is why the army’s modernisation needs to be at the top of the list of government priorities. It’ll be too late if ISIS gets fully established; if that happens, the Philippines could be in for decades of Islamic terrorism on its soil – and not just the soil of Mindanao but across the entire landmass of the Philippines.

Staring next year and running to 2022, the government will spend US$1.7 billion on a military-upgrade programme. Hardware items include specialist rifles, drones, remote-controlled bomb-disposal robots, attack helicopters, smart bombs, fast boats and submarines – none of which they have right now.

Outside the country, developments in the Philippines in respect of terrorism are being closely watched and there’s no shortage of offers to help and supply arms and equipment. From Japan to South Korea to China to Russia to Israel to the UK to the US, assistance is available.

In December, for example, China offered a free US$14 million arms package to the Philippines, along with a US$500 million soft loan for additional military and security equipment. Offers to supply modern weapons have come from Russia and the terms of those are being worked out. In March Japan undertook to supply the Philippine Coast Guard with 12 patrol boats; South Korea is being looked to for fighter aircraft.

And last week, the first consignment of towed howitzers arrived from Israel-based multinational defence-electronics company, Elbit Systems, under a deal made with the previous administration.

The Philippine military certainly needs efficient and modern equipment – but it also needs greater skills in understanding and fighting an enemy that rejoices in being killed. The Israelis can certainly supply that too; their country’s entire history has depended on it. And still does. The same goes for the Russians who’ve been dealing with an Islamist terror threat within their borders – in Chechnya and Dagestan – for the past quarter of a century.

Modernising the Philippine military, however, involves more than upgrading the military hardware; important though that is. It requires a complete overhaul of how troops are taught and trained and how to fight a new type of foe. The Philippines hasn’t had to face suicide bombers so far, for example, but that’s likely to change. Martyrdom is central to jihad, the Holy Struggle to rid the world of “Unbelievers”.

There’s also evidence that there’s been some training and recruiting of suicide bombers. Early last year it was revealed that a Moroccan jihadist, killed in a firefight with government troops, had been in the country tutoring the Abu Sayyaf group in suicide bombing.

ISIS-radicalised groups like the Maute are very different to what might be called the Philippines’ traditional Muslim insurgents – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Neither of these are ideologically driven.

They weren’t fighting to cleanse the world of Infidels or to create a global caliphate; they were fighting for a Muslim homeland. Neither the MNLF nor the MILF have suicide bombers within their weaponry. They’ve never talked of one day seeing their flag flying above St Peter’s in Rome.

The Israelis have been up against groups like the Maute but far better organised and far better resourced; groups such as the Palestine Liberation Army; Iranian proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah; the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades; the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and have managed – against all the odds – to keep their people safe and defend the State of Israel. Not always of course, but what they’ve been able to achieve in terms of national security given the scale of the threat they face on all borders, is remarkable.

Sophisticated weaponry and highly trained troops is part of how they’ve done it; but equally they’ve relied on intelligence and in that area the Israelis are second to none. Mossad – the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations – is widely regarded as the finest intelligence service in the world.

In Mistaravim it has one of the finest counter-terrorism units in the world. Its operatives assimilate within the enemy population gathering intelligence as well as assassinating and capturing terrorists. They also perform hostage rescues and law enforcement duties, all of which they’re specifically trained for.

The point is, Israel cannot be defended without men and women of this calibre; and men and women of this calibre can only gain the skills they need from rigorous and appropriate training to build the necessary physical, mental and technical capabilities. And that has to come from highly professional and specialised instructors. It’s not knowledge that can be assumed or something made up on the hoof.

That level of training simply is not available in the Philippines right now. Of course there’s weapons training, military exercises and classroom work – but not at this level. The fact is the enemy is far more sophisticated than – at least in the past – it’s been given credit for.

Furthermore, it’s changed almost out of recognition; it’s morphed into a completely different beast and it’s only recently that AFP generals have been prepared to admit that. They’re not fighting bandits and highwaymen anymore; they’re up against radicalised groups that have been supplemented by foreign battle-hardened fighters who bring with them a great deal of military expertise.

It’s disturbing to learn that Chechens are fighting with ISIS-linked groups in the Philippines. These are men from the real hard school of the mujahedeen who fought the Russian Army in Chechnya – a group which boasts serious military strategists, among them former officers of the Russian Army. ISIS itself has former Iraqi Republican Guard generals at its core.

If we look at what’s currently happening in Marawi it’s alarming. A relatively small Islamist force – relative that is to the AFP strength ranged against it – is still holding a part of the city after a month-long conflict. That shows that they’ve been militarily astute. They prepared well for the siege by laying in plenty of provisions; they’ve made their base difficult to assail by strategically positioning snipers to guard it; they’ve taken hostages and prevented a civilian population from leaving, thus making aerial bombardment and even house-to-house assaults virtually impossible. Right now they’re holding most of the cards.

The Maute and their like cannot be beaten by bravado; they can’t be denied as a formidable opponent; they can’t be talked into submission by telling them how inferior they are; they can’t be negotiated with in an attempt to provide a cosmetically pleasing solution. They have to be defeated militarily along with all those that come after them. But not just out-gunned and out-resourced; they have to be out-manoeuvred tactically and psychologically.

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