Shake-up: AFP top brass retiring this year

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – By the end of 2014, the military would have an entirely new top brass. The chief of staff, the vice chief of staff, the commanding generals of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, as well as chiefs of 3 of the 6 major commands are all retiring this year. 

Army chief Lieutenant General Noel Coballes is the first to retire on February 7, when he turns 56, the mandatory retirement age in the military. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Tuesday, January 7, that the Board of Generals (BOG) has already submitted to President Benigno Aquino III its list of nominees to replace Coballes.

Air Force chief Lieutenant General Lauro Catalino Dela Cruz is retiring on April 30 while Navy chief Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano is retiring on May 1. 

Armed Forces chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista is retiring on July 20. Vice chief of Staff Lieutenant General Alan Luga is retiring on May 12. 

Four other 3-star generals are also retiring this year:

February 16 — Philippine Military Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Edgar Abogado

August 17 — Western Command chief Lieutenant General Roy Deveraturda

September 6 — Eastern Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Rainer Cruz

September 8 — Southern Luzon Command chief Lieutenant General Caesar Ordoyo

Strong contenders in the Army post

All eyes are on the selection of the next Army chief, a key post that has become the stepping stone of those later picked as AFP chiefs of staff.

This was Bautista's route. He was Army chief for 14 months before he was appointed chief of staff of the 125,000-strong Army-dominated troops. 

Two names have been floated as the possible successor of Coballes in February and possibly even of Bautista in July — Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) chief Lieutenant General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr and 7th Infantry Division commander Major General Hernando Iriberri. 

Catapang is a classmate of Bautista in the Philippine Military (PMA) "Dimalupig" Class 1981. He enjoys the advantage of familiarity to President Aquino who hails from Tarlac, where Nolcom is based.

Catapang could take Bautista's route. He may be appointed Army chief in February and then chief of staff in July. 

When he was a young lieutenant, Catapang joined the military revolt against the Marcos dictatorship as member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). He was part of the EDSA rebel force that secured the Radio Veritas station in Quezon City that was used by the mutinous units to broadcast their anti-Marcos propaganda. 

After Edsa 1, Catapang pushed for the disbandment of RAM because it was becoming divisive. The group would be responsible for various coup attempts against the administration of the late President Corazon Aquino. (READ: Gregorio Catapang: 'I was prepared to die for this cause')

Before becoming the Nolcom chief, Catapang was the same command's operations chief and then later commanding general of the 7th Infantry Division based in Nueva Ecija.

"Trabaho lang po, kahit sa'n po tayo makarating, basta mabigyan tayo ng panibagong trabaho, trabaho lang po tayo (We're just doing out job. We will continue to do our jobs wherever we will be appointed next)," said Catapang.

Catapang was in Camp Aguinaldo on Monday, January 6, for the turn-over ceremony of Nolcom's P379,000 donation to ABS-CBN's Sagip Kapamilya Foundation. Nolcom turned acacia trees felled by Typhoon Santi in October into furniture and sold them.

Gazmin's spokesman

The other strong contender for the top Army post is one of Catapang's deputies, the current 7th Infantry Division commander Major General Hernando Iriberri, who enjoys the backing of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. 

He was Gazmin's former senior military adviser and spokesman (when Gazmin was Army chief) before he became the commander of the Army's 503rd Brigade in Abra and later 7th ID chief. 

A member of PMA "Matikas" Class 1983, Iriberri is considered too young for the post. But seniority was not an issue for Aquino when he appointed Bautista Army chief in 2011 and AFP chief in 2012.  He bypassed commanders more senior than him. (READ: Son of slain general is new AFP chief)

Catapang's other route

Whether or not he takes the Army's top post, Catapang is also among those in contention for the post of AFP chief of staff.

His current post as chief of Nolcom is also a key post that has launched the career of previous AFP chief of staff General Ricardo David, the first chief of staff under the Aquino administration.

David's route could work for Catapang. Iriberri could take the top Army post while Catapang waits it out as Nolcom chief for 5 months until Bautista retires in July.

Iriberri can then wait for Catapang's retirement on July 11, 2015 and have 9 months to become chief of staff before he himself retires on April 22, 2016 – a month before the 2016 presidential elections.

Other names

While Catapang is the strongest contender for now, there's also no telling how the tide will change from February to July as shown in the previous selection of the chief of staff. Dela Cruz was believed to be a shoo-in for the post, but the President surprised many when he appointed Bautista instead. 

If seniority will be the primary consideration, Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) chief Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero will be a candidate. The former Marine commandant will remain as the most senior 3-star general when all the 9 have retired. The first and only chief of staff to come from the Marines is now Muntinlupa Representative Rodolfo Biazon.

A possible dark horse in the chief of staff race is current Deputy Chief for Plans (J5) Major General Jeffrey Delgado of PMA Class 1982. He comes from the Air Force and was the President's senior military adviser and later commander of the 15th Strike Wing.

Delgado is perceived to be the strongest candidate to succeed Dela Cruz as commanding general of the Philippine Air Force.

Transitioning military

Bautista retires in July as the AFP begins the second phase of Oplan Bayanihan, the military's Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) that aims to make insurgency irrelevant by 2016. The military will start handing over the security operations of various local government units to the police. 

"The year 2014 is our transition period. We will initiate gradual transition [of LGUs] to appropriate agencies of government," Bautista said. 

The New People's Army (NPA) remains the biggest threat to internal security. It is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which recently declared it has given up on the peace talks with the Aquino administration.

Bautista belittled CPP's plans to grow its numbers back to 25,000. The military earlier estimated their numbers to be around 4,000. The CPP remains strong in other areas, especially in Mindanao.

Against the backdrop of growing maritime disputes in the region, Bautista said the military has to aggressively shift its focus on territorial defense. The military also has to deal with the impact of climate change.

"Our approach to territorial defense remains the same. We renounce war as an instrument of national policy. We would like to resolve conflicts in the most peaceful manner. It applies internally and also externally. We will continue to pursue that national policy, without saying that we will not prepare for any contingencies. We will prepare for any contingencies that is why we have modernization program," said Bautista. – Rappler.com