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MANILA, Philippines – The military may be flexing its muscles in the face of international territorial disputes, but in reality, its air force is hardly primed for battle and is one of the most poorly equipped in the region, according to the Commission on Audit.
Only one fourth of its 393 aircraft are active or “full mission capable,” while more than half are headed for the scrapyard.
The COA said lack of funds was to blame for the poor state of the country’s air defenses, which must be upgraded because of internal and external threats.
The Philippines could hardly stake a claim over disputed territories with an ill-equipped military, and should not depend on other countries for its defense as this would be irresponsible, it added.
The audit agency said that at the end of 2010, less than a fourth of the Philippine Air Force’s planes, which is 91 or 23.66 percent, were active. Another 81 units or 20.61 percent were partially mission-capable or inactive, while majority or 221 units representing 56.23 percent were to be disposed of.
“Considering this abject state of its air assets, which are mostly aging, the Philippine Air Force is ill equipped to be operationally responsive to national security and development and is hard pressed to efficiently and effectively serve the economic interest and welfare of the nation,” the COA said in its 2010 report on the Air Force.
The Air Force told the COA that there have been some changes since May 2011. The number of active aircraft had increased to 97, the inactive ones reduced numbered 87, while those for dropping totaled 207. Still, the active aircraft were just one fourth of its total strength.
COA said that even if the country has renounced war, it was important for it to maintain credible armed forces for its external and internal defense and security, especially given its vast territory and natural resources.
It pointed out that the country faced several internal threats and was vulnerable to conflict, what with tensions over various international incidents and territorial disputes, including the conflict over the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by several Asian countries.
It said it was highly possible for the Philippines to get drawn in should hostilities between North and South Korea erupt because the US could not avoid using the country as a staging area because of its strategic location.
“All these are the best arguments for the immediate modernization or capability upgrade of the Air Force. It is also totally irresponsible for a nation to entirely depend on other nations for the survival of its own people,” it said.
It also said the Philippines would have “a very difficult and weak bargaining position” when asserting its claim over the Spratly Islands and any other territory given the sad state of its military strength.
The COA said that even the military’s 91 full mission aircraft – 34 airplanes and 57 helicopters – were not much to be impressed about.
It said four of them were 42 years old, while seven were over 30 years old. Nine are over 20 years old, 23 are 11 to 20 years old and 48 were acquired after the year 2000. But it stressed that the ages it gave for the aircraft were based on the year of acquisition and not even on the date of manufacture, which it said was unavailable.
Compared to its neighbors in the region who have state-of-the art fighter planes, the country has a pretty old fleet, it said.
The helicopters, which serve as the Air Force’s workhorses, are Vietnam War vintage, and are able to operate because they were reconditioned or upgraded. But officers attest to their reliability, it said.
The air force’s 81 partially mission-capable aircraft badly need repairs, but their parts are not readily available in the market because these aircraft models are already obsolete, it pointed out.
The COA said the Philippines “virtually has a non-existent air deterrent capability,” compared to ASEAN fighter squadrons. The country’s Air Force used to be one of the best in Southeast Asia in the 60′s and 70”s, but is now one of Asia’s most poorly equipped in terms of assets and capability, it added.
Lives are also at stake. The COA said wear and tear from aging of the aircraft could lead to crashes, and noted that 37 of 156 crashes in the past 20 years were attributed to “material.”
The lack of helicopters that could have airlifted wounded soldiers to hospitals contributed to their deaths due to massive blood loss, it said. The Air Force’s weak capabilities for search and rescue could also mean loss of lives during calamities, it added.
The COA said the AFP Modernization Law has not produced stellar results for the Air Force because of funding problems.
From 1996 to 2009, P33.9 billion, or 64 percent of the first tranche of P50 billion, was channeled to the program. This was only a 10.22 percent compliance rate for the overall approved budget of P331.6 billion. Of the P33.9 billion, only five percent went to the Air Force.
The amount was hardly enough to modernize the fleet and part of it was also used for the housing requirements of Air Force personnel, which is part of the modernization program, the COA said.
The capital outlay given to the Air Force from 2001 to 2010 amounted to only P38.2 million, it noted, not enough for the purchase of equipment.
But the COA also said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines was in the process of acquiring 18 basic trainer aircraft and eight combat utility helicopters worth P3.479 billion. It also has plans to buy other aircraft worth P7.2 billion.
The COA noted, however, that the modernization program has a long way to go, partly because of the budget deficit, and partly because of a clamor from the people to spend the country’s resources on health, education, housing and other social services, which is something that the government could not just ignore.
Another component of the problem is the limited funds for maintenance of the remaining air assets, the cost of which is getting higher because of the aging of the aircraft and the scarcity of aircraft parts.
The COA also noted a lawmaker’s report which stated that the AFP’s budget should not exceed that of the Department of Education, which impedes the Armed Forces in improving its equipment.
It also found that another obstacle to the acquisition of military hardware were the stringent requirements of the procurement law, which it said was not responsive to the needs of the Air Force and prevents the speedy delivery of essential equipment.
One obstacle is the condition that funds appropriated by Congress should be commensurate to the increase in the gross domestic product.
But the Armed Forces should also share the blame. The COA noted a report by the Heritage Foundation, an American think tank, which stated that the military failed to use funds earned from the sale of a military camp because it did not know how to conduct large-scale arms bids involving foreign components.
In pushing for the modernization of the Air Force, the COA said foreign investors would not come into a country perceived to be weak and has peace and order problems, while a security threat not managed properly could lead to loss of lives and sovereignty.
It recommended that the Armed Forces study short-term solutions to raise badly needed funds to modernize air assets, while looking for long-term solutions as well.
The Armed Forces should also appeal to higher authorities to extend the modernization law to meet its objectives, while the AFP Headquarters and the Defense Department should form a committee to draft a special procurement law that would meet the needs of the Air Force and AFP. The President should be asked to certify this draft bill as urgent, it added.
The Air Force should also form an ad hoc group that would take charge of the acquisition of aircraft and development of an air defense system.
The Air Force, in response, told the COA that it has initiated meetings with the government’s procurement policy board about amending the procurement law, and has created a team for the identification of specific needs for capability build-up.