Aquino rattles non-existent saber

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When I chanced upon the headline, at first I couldn’t believe it. It says “Aquino bares AFP buildup vs “bullies in our backyard.” It was written by veteran reporter Cecil Morella of Agence France Presse, based on President Aquino’s speech at the Navy’s May 21 anniversary celebration.

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The Taiwan newspaper's front-paged news article

The Taiwan newspaper’s front-paged news article

What? Aquino, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, is mobilizing our armed forces to fight intrusions by the Chinese and Taiwanese in the Spratleys and in the North? Well, not really, but it certainly would have the Chinese, mainlanders and islanders, nodding their heads in exasperation or in hilarity. Here’s the first paragraph of the story:

“President Aquino on Tuesday announced a $1.8-billion military upgrade to help defend the country’s maritime territory against “bullies,” amid an ever-worsening dispute with China. In thinly veiled comments referring to China, Aquino vowed, in a speech delivered on the occasion of the Philippine Navy’s 115th anniversary, that the Armed Forces would be given the resources necessary to protect Philippine sovereignty.“

The Taiwanese would interpret this as a belligerent stance over the sanctions it has imposed on the Philippines to protest the killing of its fisherman by our Coast Guard personnel, I thought. True enough, Mr. Morella’s piece was page one news story in The China Post, Taiwan’s leading English-language newspaper, with the headline: “Manila boosts military by US$1.8 billion to resist bullies.”

I really hoped the reporter had misquoted Aquino or merely hyped his statements. But I checked the speech posted on the government’s website and there it was (translated from Pilipino): “We have a clear message to the world: The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard,” he said.

Either we have a president who is a liar or one who deludes himself into believing he heads a country with enormous naval power. Didn’t he even ask his Defense Secretary what exactly is the Navy’s “capability” to fight bullies in the disputed seas? He would have been told, it consisted essentially two frigates—the World War II vintage BRP Rajah Humabon and the 48-year old US Coast Guard hand-me-down BRP Gregorio del Pilar.

Taiwan’s? With 48 warships–four destroyers, 22 frigates, two attack submarines– Taiwan is actually the 10th largest navy in the world. The People’s Republic of China, the other ‘bully’ Aquino says our navy will resist, has the third largest navy (after the US and Russia) with 282 warships.

“We have allocated P75 billion for our AFP modernization program,” Aquino declared in his speech (“Sa katunayan, naka­paglaan na tayo ng mahigit dalawampu’t walong bilyong piso para sa ating AFP Modernization and Capability Upgrade Program.”) He is shamelessly misleading the Navy and the public, or he doesn’t really bother to review the speeches made by his often clueless speechwriters.

The P75 billion Aquino referred to is what the AFP brass asked Congress to allocate from 2013 to 2017. The Congress hasn’t allocated the entire amount yet since such multi-year allocations could be authorized only if the AFP Modernization Act that expired last year were extended. Aquino signed into law, last December, Republic Act 10349 that extended the 1995 law. However, contrary to many news reports, it had not allocated a specific amount for the AFP’s modernization but merely identified, as in the old law, sources for it.

Aquino managed, to his credit, to get Congress to allocate P15 billion this year for the modernization program. However, his or his officials’ bumbling has made this amount completely useless in terms of fast modernizing the Philippine Navy this year.

Since 2011, the AFP has been undertaking negotiations with the Italian government for the purchase of two second-hand Maestrale-class frigates of the Italian navy. Initially estimated to cost P12 billion, the purchase price has increased to P16 billion. The AFP brass last year had been bragging that the Navy will be getting the two frigates, which would become its most modern warships, by November this year.

Last February though, Defense suddenly announced that the plan to purchase the Italian frigates had been dropped, “because evaluation studies found out that acquiring these vessels will be more costly in the long run.” Evaluation studies after two years?

In March there were reports that the defense department would issue new guidelines for the bidding it would undertake to purchase two brand-new frigates. So far these haven’t been issued.

“I don’t understand why after more than a year of negotiations, Aquino suddenly aborted the purchase of the Italian frigates,” a military officer said. “And at a time when we obviously need all the naval assets we can get our hands on.”

Aquino’s sudden decision to junk the purchase of the Italian frigates has triggered rumors in the global military-equipment industry. There are reports that DND officials, for unknown reason, suddenly became interested in South Korea’s Incheon-class frigates. (More on that this week.)

The earliest estimate, according to Navy officials for the two new wished-for frigates to be in the Navy’s hands to defend us from “bullies”, would be by early 2015.

The only other addition to our naval assets therefore this year will be the Hamilton-class cutter BRP Ramon Alcaraz (USCGC Dallas), another 45-year US Coast Guard hand-me down, which was transferred to our Navy last year. Its refitting and repairs in South Carolina had taken longer than expected because, according to a Defense-industry blog, its deterioration had been underestimated.

Aquino said in his speech that the ship will arrive in the country in August.

However, the French news agency reported that, according to the president, the Philippines, by 2017, “would acquire two new frigates, two helicopters capable of antisubmarine warfare, three fast vessels for coastal patrols and eight amphibious assault vehicles (emphasis mine).”

What? In 2017, after he will have stepped down? And he is asking the Navy to fight “bullies” with warships it will acquire three years from now? He is rattling sabers he will get only in the future?

E-mail: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
Websites: www.trigger.ph and www.rigobertotiglao.com

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