After decades of preoccupation with internal stability, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is shifting its focus to external defense as a response to the developing situation in the South Chine Sea. In its 2011-2016 National Security Plan, the Aquino government committed to reforming the Philippine security sector and bolstering the capability of the AFP through security sector reform, which has three elements: capacity building, military professionalization, and the engagement of other security actors. Through Aquino’s year in office, modest additions to military equipment were made. However, improvements in other areas such as professionalization remain questionable. This backgrounder offers a brief history of professionalization in the Philippines and discusses its importance in the AFP’s shift to external defense.
Introduction – Security sector reform in the Philippines
As a response to the changing security situation in the South China Sea, the Aquino administration’s 2011-2016 National Security Plan (NSP) put the protection of territories as one of its main security priorities. Aquino committed to accelerate the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) capability upgrades to better respond to current security needs. However, given the prioritization of internal stability in the past decades as well as the prevalence of issues related to corruption and abuses within the AFP, shifting military attention and resources to address external threats is not straightforward.
To tackle issues within the AFP, one of the key elements in the NSP is Security Sector Reform (SSR), which has been added to various security plans of relevant governmental agencies. The AFP’s Internal Peace and Security Plan’s (IPSP) SSR component is composed of three elements that target perceived gaps in the organization. The first element tackles gaps in military hardware, combat training, and non-traditional skills including peacebuilding. The second one deals with military professionalism and addresses issues in governance, corruption, and adherence to the principles of human rights and the Rule of Law. The third dimension focuses on the engagement of other security actors to work towards the achievement of peace. The implementation of SSR is anchored to the shift to a Whole of Nation approach and the adherence to the concept of human security. These changes aim at transforming the AFP into a world class military.
Through the common mandate of the NSP and the IPSP as well as the passage of relevant laws such as the 2012 AFP Modernization Act, the Aquino government has followed through with its SSR objectives by making modest additions to military hardware. The commitment to invest in hardware is not out of context given the rise in defense spending in Southeast Asia in the last four years. Being one of the weakest and ill-equipped military in the region, there is urgency to be up to par.
Professionalism in the Philippines
As quoted in the Philippine Defense Transformation White Paper, the AFP Code of Ethics define professionalism as “…the expert application of specialized skills based on organized body of knowledge and in accordance with laws and/or Code of Ethics with the highest degree of excellence in the accomplishment of the mission”. With the alignment of the IPSP to the principles of SSR, it begs to ask if this definition reflects its vision for the AFP. It can be argued that a definition of professionalism that better encapsulates the paradigm shift that the NSP and the IPSP upholds would be helpful in tying together initiatives and goals.
On a wall inside the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting 71-year old ship grounded in the disputed Ayungin Shoal, which is also the country’s last line of defense in the South China Sea, an unknown Marine wrote grievances:
How long can our [personnel] hold the line here in Ayungin if our daily needs cannot be provided!!! Even [a] machine [needs rest]. [So do we]. Those who are [at] the top, you are blind you can’t see [the] reality. Tamaan sana kayo ng kidlat para makita nyo kami sa baba ‘nyo. (I hope you get struck by lightning so you can see those who are below you.) Ito lang ang kanilang nakikita $ P. (The only thing they see are dollars and pesos.)
The statement communicates some endemic issues within the military. For one, it highlights the state of the relationship between military personnel and their leaders. It demonstrates how much work needs to be done in order to build trust not only between the AFP and the civilian leadership but also within all levels and branches of the AFP itself. Second are the feelings of neglect. The inability of the government to provide basic needs in the field and proper benefits for the personnel and their families contribute to low morale and distrust towards their superiors. There were reports of the lack of mandatory personnel training and briefing of Marines stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre. In the AFP as a whole, a common personnel currently receives a paltry salary that is below the decent livable wage and receives a meager PHP 90 or $2.50 CAD allowance per day.
With these issues, there is little surprise that the AFP’s professionalism track record has been poor. With its history of high military restiveness, it is considered a powerful political player capable of overthrowing governments and influencing leaders. A number of scholars identify the regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965 as the starting point of decreased professionalism in the organization. When the late president gained individual civilian control of the AFP and exposed its personnel to development issues, it resulted to disillusionment and frustration towards the government. The last serious coup attempt was in 2006, which aimed to overthrow the Arroyo government due to alleged corruption but as recent as February 2015 news of a possible coup following the January Mamasapano incident surfaced. The Philippine Constitution states that the AFP is the “protector of the state and the people” and over the years the armed forces – as well as the citizens to some extent – has come to interpret this as the protection of the state and its people from corrupt and incompetent heads of government. This demonstrates how little has been done in order to repair civil-military relations and how professionalization was nothing short of neglected. One major criticism of the 1995-2010 AFP Modernization Program is that a meager 4.56% of funds appropriated for non-materiel capability enhancement, which includes professionalization activities, were actually utilized.
Professionalism and external defense
The importance of SSR and professionalization is almost exclusively discussed in the context of internal security in Philippine security plans, but its role in external defense should not be discounted. For one, professionalism can increase the AFP’s credence. A professional military helps a country’s external defense by “[bolstering] its forces’ deterrent value and thereby [dissuading] military actions by countries who otherwise might be inclined to attack”. It also helps create a credible stance outside its borders by developing a capable, disciplined, and knowledgeable armed force that can confidently face foreign intimidation. It does so by educating personnel in global principles such as human rights, international humanitarian law, and the Rule of Law and exposing them to successful military practices. This is important for successfully managing peace “…would require procedures – good practices, good offices, and a steady and imaginative institutional framework…” As well, in the process of developing sound professionalization strategies, the AFP would be able to review these principles and reconcile parts that might be in conflict with cultural traditions and local social mores.
Second, professionalism can strengthen AFP leadership and assist in the forces’ shift to external defense. While it is true that professionalism alone cannot protect borders from threats, an unprofessional military signals weakness not only within the organization but also in the civilian leadership making the country more vulnerable to threats. Strengthening leadership and developing trust within the organization requires the eradication of politics in its promotion system. The current and past administrations have been notorious with its high AFP leadership turnover rate resulting from the use of promotion to reward loyalty. From 2011 to this day, Pres. Aquino has gone through six Chiefs of Staff with the longest tenure being two years. This quick turnover affects the AFP’s effectiveness and efficiency for it does not allow enough time to implement reforms and see results.
It is important to remember that AFP reform would have to go hand in hand with addressing the lack of transparency and accountability of civilian leaders and governing bodies, building trust within all levels and branches of the AFP, and acknowledging the basic needs of personnel. As Beeson et al. argued reform “…cannot be isolated from a broader process of social transformation and development in which the growth of civil society and effective mechanisms of oversight and control are vital”. The Aquino administration has less than a year in power. The challenge for the incoming administration is to build on what has been accomplished and improve on what is lacking. Recent developments in the South China Sea indicate that the situation would only be more complex in the coming years. It is important that the next Philippine president is committed in reforming the security sector and has a long term, holistic vision for the AFP. He or she should aim for the complete professionalization of the organization and must be willing to tackle issues in civilian leadership that has been affecting AFP performance for many years.
Joann Chloe Correa has a Master of Arts in Globalization Studies from McMaster University. She is interested in security sector reform and international air & space security. Joann is a former Security Governance Group intern. She speaks fluent English and Filipino.