In the 1990s, operatives from the Philippine Navy’s special warfare group (SWAG) used to blow up Chinese-installed markers on uninhabited features in the West Philippine Sea.

The explosions were so tiny but it could be heard loudly in Hawaii, making American military officials at the Pacific Command, at that time, nervous as the Philippines played a cat-and-mouse game with China.

China would put up stone markers to claim territories in South China Sea, but soon after, Filipino troops removed them, blowing up these markers placed on areas within the Philippines’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Two decades later, the Philippines can no longer deal with Chinese intrusions into its sovereign waters. It has no armed vessel to even match the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) or even its coast guard.

On Feb. 6, a Chinese coast guard vessel pointed a blinding laser to a local maritime law enforcement ship in the West Philippine Sea.

It had no counter measure, exposing the weakness of the country’s armed forces and maritime law enforcement vessels.

Rear Admiral Armand Balilo, a coast guard spokesman, said the coast guard has only 25 capital ships to guard one the world’s longest coastlines.

The vessels only have .50 caliber machine guns, water cannons, and armed personnel who could board and inspect civilian vessels at high seas.

Sadly, the Philippine Navy has fewer ocean-going vessels that could patrol hundreds of miles away from the shores for longer than 10 days.

It has two guided missile frigates and a second-hand South Korean corvette and six other Offshore Patrol Vessels – three former British Peacock-class ships and three former US Coast Guard Hamilton cutters.

Two more corvettes and six Off-Shore Vessels would be added in two to three years. The rest were second-hand US, Australian, and South Korean platforms destined for the museums.

There is an urgency to modernize the country’s navy and air force to build a minimum credible defense posture that could deter China’s coercive and aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

But there’s a stiff price for upgrading the country’s air and naval forces. The Navy would need at least P200 billion to acquire frigates, corvettes, Offshore Patrol Vessels, minesweepers, and submarines.

The Navy’s Marine units need highly mobile shore-to-ship batteries to increase its anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability.

The Air Force also needs almost the same amount to acquire squadrons of multi-role fighters, close air support aircraft, long-range maritime surveillance planes, and an integrated air defense system, including an air defense missile system.

The Philippines does not have the funds to acquire the desired air and naval capabilities in one go. It could not even complete two phases of its modernization program. It still needs 300 billion pesos to complete the modernization programs Horizon 1 and Horizon 2.

It still has no funds for the much more expensive Horizon 3 when modern platforms are required to be at par with Southeast Asian neighbors.

The Philippines is among the weakest military forces in the region with World War II-era ships and Vietnam War vintage helicopters.

Albert del Rosario, the former foreign affairs secretary, has proposed an innovative but old method of modernizing the country’s armed forces – leasing the equipment from another country or from a commercial company.

Del Rosario’s idea could be a cheaper, faster, and more effective way to upgrade the country’s creaking defense equipment.

The Philippines would not have to wait for defense manufacturers to deliver the equipment in two to three years.

And the cost of renting equipment would be much lower than acquiring them.

Lending and leasing planes, tanks and ships are not new. Many countries in Europe and even in India have been leasing military equipment to cut costs as governments put a cap on defense spending.

As far back as during the Second World War, the United States had sent tanks, fighters, and capital ships to allied countries like France and the United Kingdom, and now rivals Russia and China, to fight Germany and Japan.

In the 1940s, the US leased more than $50 billion or the equivalent of nearly $700 billion worth of supplies and equipment to its allies during World War II.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed a Lend-Lease Act to supply for five years military equipment to Ukraine during fiscal year 2023.

The US has decided to give more than $1 billion to Ukraine, including its Abrams main battle tanks.

Since the early 2000s, European states have been leasing aircraft and ships on a need basis. For instance, Germany leased Israeli drones when it deployed troops to Afghanistan.

The Czech Republic also leased 14 Saab Gripen multi-role fighters for 10 years. The Philippines is negotiating with Sweden to acquire the Gripen but it could look at the Czech Republic’s experience.

The United States and the United Kingdom leased from Boeing its huge C17 Globemaster transport aircraft to rapidly deploy troops and equipment.

India, a regional power in South Asia, has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines from Russia and has been talking to South Korea to lease minesweeper vessels.

The Philippines can explore lend-lease arrangements with allies, like the United States, to upgrade its navy and air force faster and cheaper. The United States knows the Philippines needs modern equipment to share the burden of keeping peace and stability in this part of the world.

It could take advantage of the Lend-Lease Act signed by President Biden in May last year. The Philippines has been designated as a major non-NATO ally, like Israel, Egypt and Jordan. It should get a lion’s share of the foreign military sales credit Washington allocates to its allies and partners every year.

Last year, the US promised $100 million in military aid but this is not enough given the threats it faces from a bully in the neighborhood. The Philippines’ defense forces are so puny that they cannot deter China.

Raising the military aid to $500 million to allow the Philippines to lease F16 fighters, M142 HIMARS, and transfer at a give-away price USS Cyclone-class Patrol ships and C130 heavy-lift transport planes would be enough to energize the armed forces.

It’s about time the Philippine military looked into del Rosario’s proposal to modernize the military through lease arrangements. It might be the answer to the country’s problem of a delayed modernization program.