The Philippines is not like South Korea or Israel.
Although the maritime dispute in the South China Sea is a constant reminder of a real external threat, the Philippines, unlike Israel, is not surrounded by enemies wishing to erase it from the map.
Neither does it face real aggression to unify two states at war like the tense situation on the Korean peninsula. The Korean war in the 1950s has not actually ended. Only an armistice has been keeping the two countries from trading missiles or conventional artillery rounds.
Israel and South Korea force able-bodied men to serve in the military, building up huge reserve units in support of lean and mean professional soldiers. It’s particularly a big deal in South Korea, where talk of exempting members of phenomenal boy band BTS from 18-month conscription is always controversial.
Israel and South Korea could provide a good model of well-trained reserve units, but the Philippines does not need to train and equip nearly a million soldiers every year. It is not like China and North Korea, which spend a lot on defense every year.
Sara Duterte-Carpio’s proposal to compel all 18-year-old men and women to render military service is absurd. Her proposal is not simply to restore the mandatory reserve officers’ training course (ROTC) in the universities but a conscription system for all able-bodied citizens.
It is impractical and a total waste of precious resources, which could be better spent on upgrading the outdated and obsolete military equipment.
For instance, the Philippine Navy has only started to acquire new warships — two guided-missile frigates, corvettes, and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) — to replace its fleet of World War II-vintage destroyer escorts and minesweepers. Some of our warships actually came from South Vietnam in 1975, escaping the fall of Saigon.
The Philippine Air Force is also buying more S-70i Black Hawk combat utility helicopters and Turkish TAI-129 attack helicopters to retire the Vietnam War-era Bell UH-1D/1H helicopters.
The country needs modern equipment, not warm bodies to fight the 21st century war. It has a larger standing army than most Southeast Asian neighbors. Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand have Southeast Asia’s largest armies in terms of size.
Just imagine the annual budget needed to put up more garrisons and a huge pool of army trainers to handle the new recruits. It could be much bigger than the actual defense budget every year.
Conscription is not a totally bad idea. It really depends on the country’s needs, especially if it faces an imminent threat of invasion, like Ukraine.
There are more than 30 countries around the world where the young population, aged 18 to 30, are called up regularly to render active military service, like tiny Singapore which can afford the costs of training a citizen army.
Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks, able-bodied men have been forced to serve the army. These ancient states were in constant wars and their ambitious rulers always wanted to expand territories and subjugate weaker states.
Persian King Xerxes the Great invaded Greece during his time but a hundred years later, Alexander from Macedonia conquered more areas up to India and North Africa, including the old Persian empire.
In Europe, constant conflicts in the late 18th century compelled France, Germany, and Russia to conscript all able-bodied men as cannon fodders in a war of attrition. Napoleon Bonaparte institutionalized conscription, driven by his ambition to rule Europe.
European countries were forced to commit hundreds of thousands of young men as they entered two world wars in the 20th century.
After World War I, Adolf Hitler defied the Treaty of Versailles that demilitarized Germany, by passing a military service law as he prepared to annex the rest of Europe.
Even in the United States, men were conscripted when the Union and the Confederacy fought a bloody civil war in the 19th century. Washington drafted young men to service to fight a distant war — Vietnam in the 1960s.
In the past, the Philippines put its young population into military service. But it is not ready to build a huge reserve unit patterned after Israel or South Korea. Vietnam also has almost a million standing army personnel and reserve forces but it has a land border to protect, a situation reminiscent of the 1979 war with China.
The threat conditions in the country are entirely different. What the Philippines needs is a strong navy and air force to protect its maritime borders.
Since the American colonial period, the Philippines has had an insular army, trained and equipped to suppress rebellions.
The only time the Philippines had an external defense capability was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after President Ramon Magsaysay defeated the Huk insurgency.
In the 1960s, the air force even sent a squadron of fighters — the Limbas Squadron — to faraway Congo. It also flew army battalions to Vietnam.
When the Muslim rebellion erupted in the 1970s, dictator Ferdinand Marcos drafted young men to fight the Muslim secessionists, an imminent threat to the territorial integrity of the Republic.
Marcos’ military retreated into internal forces, just like in the American colonial period when the Philippine Constabulary was formed to help pacify pockets of insurrection and lawlessness.
Even after Marcos was removed from power in 1986, the military slowly moved from an internal to external security role.
The 200,000-member Philippine National Police is still too reliant on the military’s territorial and maneuver forces to address the Maoist-led rebellion that Marcos helped grow into a 26,000-strong force from only 300 when he imposed martial law in 1972, a power grab to keep him in power because he was no longer eligible to seek a third term as president.
The Communist threat has been greatly reduced under President Rodrigo Duterte and the military has started to gain momentum to build a modest, credible defense posture.
It has acquired its first shore-to-ship cruise missiles, India’s Brahmos, which have a range of nearly 300 kilometers, capable of hitting a target in La Union from Manila.
Sara’s idea could actually derail the military’s modernization program that aims to strengthen its external defense capability. Sara’s proposal for a mandatory military service should remain an election campaign soundbite.
Policymakers should ignore it. It is not feasible. Even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana doubted if the proposal could be implemented.
If Sara wants to instill patriotism and citizenship among the youth to get them off Tiktok, there are many alternatives like promoting civic duties and disaster preparedness. The Red Cross and other nongovernment humanitarian agencies could provide better training than military service.
Patriotism and citizenship start from the national leadership.
If you have a leader who has embraced a defeatist stance in confronting China even if the country is on the right side of the law, how can you inspire the youth to defend the country?
Filipinos were not prepared to fight the Japanese in the early years of the Pacific theater during World War II but they held their ground for five months when states around the Philippines capitulated after only days and weeks of fighting.
Let the heroics in Bataan and Corregidor serve as an inspiration. Filipinos will certainly answer calls to defend the country any time when the need arises, but the government should not waste money entertaining Sara’s not-so-well-thought-out idea of mandatory military service.
The Philippines must remain focused on building its military capability in terms of skills, equipment and broader perspective.
The Philippines has to do a lot of catching up with its neighbors to let potential enemies think twice before striking.
Let’s put Sara’s crazy proposal at the back of the national consciousness. It deserves to be thrown in the trash can.