[OPINION] The National Defense Act: We need strategic thinking, not a mad rush to legislation

I wish to submit this article as a rejoinder to Commander Jay Tarriela’s article, which blamed Commonwealth Act No. 1 for the current state of our defense forces, which are ill-equipped for the threats facing the country. 

The main thesis of this article is as follows: Commonwealth Act No. 1 has played a trivial role in the defense planning of the Philippines. It would be naïve to think that a law, almost all parts of which have been amended through time, can be singularly blamed for today’s state of affairs. After all, every defense analyst worth his or her salt understands that national defense can be regarded as the totality of social, political, economic, informational, and historical considerations which cannot be fully addressed by a single legislation, but by multiple instruments designed to achieve and protect a set of well-defined national interests. 

Indeed, the overall defense legal framework in the Philippine is now comprised of statutes supported by the issuance of strategic level policy documents such as the National Security Policy,  National Security Strategy, and Philippine Defense Transformation Roadmap that are precise iterations of modern day threats plaguing the nation in varying degrees. 

A history of struggle for land

The early history of Philippine defense and military is highlighted by famous naval battles with colonizers. The Philippines came to the West’s attention when Magellan arrived in its central islands and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi eventually conquered parts of the archipelago. In 1646, the Dutch tried but failed to wrest control of the country from Spain through the famous Batallas de Las Marinas de Manila or Battles of La Naval de Manila. Meanwhile, the British successfully occupied Manila and Cavite in 1762 after its forces broke into Manila Bay for an invasion. The beginning of the end of Spanish colonial rule came after the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, which saw the demise of the Spanish Armada against the more superior American Navy. The Battles of Leyte Gulf and Surigao Straits during World War II are hailed as the largest naval battles in history. In such historic moments, who controlled the seas determined who controlled the entire Philippine islands. 

This state of affairs shifted with the arrival of the Americans and their domination of the waters of the Far East. In an earlier paper I wrote in 2005 for the Maritime Affairs, a journal published by the National Maritime Foundation in India, the Philippines, beginning in 1898 with the outbreak of the Philippine-American War, has been a place of battle on land and for land. US supremacy over the Pacific was challenged only briefly by the Japanese in 1941. Then the concentration for control of the Philippines rested on who controlled its islands, and not anymore its seas. 

The American occupation beginning in 1898 led to a war with Philippine forces which were then dominated by land skirmishes. After the end of WWII, government forces had to deal with the HUKBALAHAP insurgency. At the height of the Cold War period, national defense and security policymakers both at home and abroad focused on containing communist insurgency. It became worse for the Philippines since it had to grapple with Muslim secessionism in Mindanao. After the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, the democratically installed government faced a third front in the battle for control of the country from rebelling soldiers. Hence, the dominance of land forces in the allocation of resources was but expected. 

A culture of mendicancy

The presence of US forces in the Philippines and the naval dominance of the US also developed a culture of mendicancy in government. Successive Philippine governments' extreme reliance on the Americans’ provision of equipment, training, sustainment, and maintenance resulted in scarce allocation for defense procurement. Likewise, the absence of a strategic competitor for the US in the region all but assured Philippine policymakers that there was no need to build up a unilaterally strong and credible defense posture for the AFP.

The reality, though, dawned upon the Philippines with the discovery of Chinese structures in Mischief Reef. The Philippine Congress then hurriedly passed the AFP Modernization Act to pursue a unilateral defense capability for the country. However, the economic and financial crises that affected successive administrations from Fidel Ramos to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and the internal armed struggles, all but put a virtual stop to the modernization of the AFP.

Government also did rely on a host of defense cooperation engagements to help slowly build up its territorial defense capability. However, overall experience from the past shows the Philippines must not allow a foreign power to underwrite its own defense and security interests. Mendicancy must not drive diplomacy because it would result in bad security policy. 

Reliance on foreign grants for the procurement of government law enforcement and search and rescue vessels is not a good function of diplomacy and is proven to be an unsustainable policy. The national goal must be to increase the extractive capacity of our industries, in order to develop a national economy capable of supporting our own defense needs and interests. 

Standing on our own

The Philippine Defense Reform Program that evolved to become the Defense System of Management, coupled with sustained economic growth and momentum, enabled the government to pursue the upgrading of defense capabilities. The institutionalization of long-term and multi-year defense capability assessment and planning systems enabled the DND to fully support and defend its funding requirements in Congress. 

The result of course is there for everyone to see. The Philippine Air Force is transitioning to the jet age, the Philippine Navy now has nascent anti-submarine and missile capabilities, and the Philippine Army is now looking at land-based missile systems. 

Changing lists and priorities are not an issue since all plans are subject to uncertainties. Criticizing shifting priorities simply because it favors one service over another, without first understanding the strategic basis of such a choice, is already obsolete practice in the defense establishment. This is a result of the long-term planning systems and consequent culture that evolved from it. It is in fact prudent for other security forces to look at how a similar system can be instituted in their services, so that the nation will not have to pay for the deployment of coastguardsmen as traffic enforcers.

A rebirth of strategic thinking

I do not disagree that we need an updated National Defense Act. I disagree with the promotion of such an idea based on narrow, unrelated, and completely irrelevant issues such as fixing the term of the Chief of Staff, or which capability needs acquiring first. These are management-level issues that must not define the size and shape of our military services. We need to require strategic thinking in this major policy debate.

Samuel Huntington once noted that a “military service may be viewed as consisting of a strategic concept which defines the role of the service in national policy, public support which furnishes it with the resources to perform this role, and organizational structure which groups the resources so as to implement most effectively the strategic concept.” With the evolving geopolitical situation, economic developments, and social realities, we need to reconceptualize our view on the role not just of each Major Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but the whole defense and security establishment of the country. With our preoccupation with insurgencies gradually waning, we need as a nation to craft a new definitive role for our defense forces.

With the rise of non-kinetic forms, “new normal” means of warfare, we need to have a wider view of how to muster and employ the elements of national power to defend and pursue our own national interest. Old paradigms must be put on the chopping block, such as unfounded notions of a dichotomy between a navy and a coast guard, or that anything that flies must be air force. We need to look at strategic choices and how these choices will affect the future organization, as well as the resourcing of each security services. We should not pursue a National Defense Act solely on the perspective kinetic warfare. It is time to be bold, creative, holistic. 

Final note

Regardless of the military service affiliations of the leadership of the DND and AFP, their decisions will be shaped by the demands of the time. The defense and military establishments are always subject to the authority of the political branches of government. I invite the readers to look at actual accomplishments of defense leaders through time and not their service affiliations. Lest we forget that former army generals shepherded major developments in the maritime domain. 

Former Secretary of National Defense and Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita led government agencies in working with Congress to pass Republic Act 9522 or the Philippine Baselines Law and consequently file our claim for an extended continental shelf in 2009. It was also a former army general, Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who led the defense establishment and worked with Congress for the extension and amendment of the AFP Modernization Program. This allowed the  navy to purchase anti-submarine helicopters and frigates, and the air force to acquire the FA50 Lead-in Fighters. Indeed, a former Navy officer at the helm of DND is not an assurance that more resources will be channeled for the navy and the air force. 

The nation and our defense partners must put their faith in the continuing professionalization of the defense and military services founded by reforms made a decade ago. Systems are now in place to enable the DND and AFP to lay the foundations for strategic thinking on the role of the services in today’s milieu. It is my hope that such a national level and strategic endeavor will be done in a very disciplined, calibrated, and deliberative manner. Demanding as it may seem, I have confidence in the ability of the defense and military services, together with the nation’s leading experts on this subject matter, to complete this task in due time. – Rappler.com

Jesse M. Pascasio is a former director at the National Coast Watch Council Secretariat under the Office of the President of the Philippines and is a long time defense and security analyst in the Philippines. He is a founding partner of the consultancy firm CAPS and Partners, Inc. and is affiliated with various national organizations dealing in maritime development and national security issues such as the Foundation for the National Interest and Movement for Maritime Philippines. All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of any particular institution which he is affiliated with.