April 13, 2016, by Editor

Missiles Not Rifles: The Significance of Military Modernization for the Next President

Written by Francis Domingo.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is gradually regaining its prestige after decades of incapacity. However, these efforts may be diminished if the next president is unable to provide a clear direction and follow through in terms of military capability management. So far, it seems that only two presidential candidates have explicitly articulated plans for continued military modernization: Jejomar Binay and Grace Poe. The other candidates – Rodrigo Duterte, Mar Roxas, and Miriam Santiago – have not outlined definite plans for the military but are prioritising diplomatic initiatives such as bilateral engagements and international organizations as strategies to address external threats. While diplomacy and military strength are equally important, the next president should not forget the colourful history of the AFP’s involvement in Philippine politics.

The military was a key player in the EDSA Revolution. Many young officers were frustrated at President Marcos’ refusal to retire many of his senior officers, meaning that the path to promotion was blocked for the lower ranks. In the post-Marcos era, factions within the military contributed to a number of military coups against successive presidents for various reasons. Multiple coup plots against President Corazon Aquino from 1986 to 1990 demonstrated the influence and hostility of the military in Philippine politics. Many key players in the military were aggrieved that Aquino released members of the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army after Marcos was ousted. They were also disgruntled that it was Aquino who capitalised on the risks they had taken when they turned against their former Commander in Chief.  The most prominent of these incidents was the 1989 coup led by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement that caused a substantial number of casualties and forced the president to seek assistance from the United States. More recently, aggrieved members of the military carried out several coup attempts that challenged the authority of President Gloria Arroyo including the Oakwood Mutiny in 2003, Oplan Hackle in 2006 and the Manila Peninsula Siege in 2007. This history of military intervention has meant that civilian political leaders are well aware that a disgruntled military can threaten their political survival. Apart from the administration of President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), a military man himself, this cycle of military adventurism has continued. The military were also active when President Joseph Estrada was ousted in 2001 as a result of a second EDSA Revolution. The threat from the military is likely is likely to remain unless specific measures are undertaken.

A current grievance of the military relates to the sorry state of military equipment at its disposal. The current government has addressed this by reinvigorating military transformation but it seems that there is still confusion regarding the direction of the modernization. While the President Aquino has clearly mandated the shift from internal security (counterinsurgency) to external security (territorial defence), the investment of government resources has still focused on the development of land forces in a region where air and sea capabilities are obviously decisive. The Philippine Army currently has the largest operational budget, the largest number of active personnel, and the most developed military hardware among the military services. Unfortunately, no compelling argument has been presented to justify the continued investment in land forces.

In addition to the enduring emphasis on land forces, two threat narratives reinforce the misguided direction of modernization. First, the threat of China’s aggressive behaviour towards the West Philippine/South China Sea has been presented as a justification for military modernization. Second, the threat of terrorist and insurgent groups is another motivation for modernization. The sections below discuss the problems with these narratives and assess the prospects of modernization in the context of the May 2016 elections.

China’s military aggression

There is widely held belief that China’s aggressive behaviour towards the Philippines will eventually lead to conflict. This idea is misleading because of two reasons. First, the characterization of China’s aggressive behaviour is inconclusive. A systematic empirical assessment of China’s foreign policy since the start of the century suggests that this characterization undervalues the level of assertiveness in some policies in the past, and misjudges the change in China’s diplomacy in 2010. Another study contends that China’s assertiveness is doubtful at best because the foreign policy evidence that supports this idea is weak.

Second, the outlook assumes that China is prepared for military conflict. This perception is again questionable. Recent assessments indicate that China’s incomplete military modernization, unclear incentives for using military force, and domestic political challenges contribute to its weakness in the context of military conflict. Therefore, policymakers and military leaders should be more cautious about making generalizations about China’s behaviour based solely on maritime disputes. Framing military modernization as a justification for China’s aggressive behaviour is counterproductive and should be avoided because a reactive military strategy does not strengthen the national security of the Philippines.

Internal security threats

The threat of terrorist attacks by groups such as the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and the ASG (Abu Sayaff Group) is another persistent justification for military modernization. This narrative is valid but overused. Internal security threats have been a recurring justification for military improvements for several decades. There are two problems if modernization proceeds in this direction. Firstly, building a formidable land force will not automatically lead to successful counterterrorist operations because it takes all sectors of society or the “Whole of Nation Approach” to address terrorism. This point has been clearly emphasised in the current Internal Peace and Security Plan of the AFP as well as studies by both local and foreign academics and policy analysts. Reprioritizing internal security operations will be a critical relapse that the AFP cannot afford to accept. Secondly, threat groups have been a national security priority for more than forty years but it seems that the military capabilities required for ground operations have not yet reached optimal level. This is a significant problem. If the resources for modernization continue to be monopolised by one service then the objective of developing a modern defence force will not be achieved.

Military modernization and the next president

The next president must not to be swayed by these threat narratives and focus on the fundamental purpose of strengthening the military: national power. More specifically, the succeeding president should emphasise the military’s role in protecting the state’s territory and people from external aggression and pursuing Philippine national interests within the region. A reactive and event-driven military modernization risks the misuse of valuable resources.

It is in the best interest of the next government to consider building a balanced and responsive military force in addition to other foreign policy instruments. In this regard, four immediate tasks need to be considered by the next president. The first is to order the creation of a policy that builds on the current version and clarifies the direction and priorities of the new government.  The second is to develop a strategy that implements the policy based on thoughtful and defined planning. The third is to strengthen independent oversight mechanisms to confirm that the direction of the modernization is consistent with the orientation towards external security. The last is to appoint equal number of civilians and military in defence positions to maintain the civil-military balance and a wide range of expertise. Even though military modernization is formidable and prolonged process, the next president can make an immediate impact if he or she ensures that the AFP will invest in more missiles than rifles in the next six years.

Francis Domingo is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at De La Salle University in Manila and a doctoral candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: CC by CARAT/Flickr.

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