At the 126th anniversary of the Philippine Army in Fort Bonifacio, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr tasked the military to prepare to shift to an external defense role as the fight against Maoist-led guerrillas is coming to an end.

“With the declining numbers of the Communist Terrorist Group (CTG), we must now recalibrate our military approach,” Marcos told the 100,000-strong Army soldiers.

According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the number of armed New People’s Army (NPA) rebels has been brought down to a little over 2,000 from over 25,000 in 1986 when the dictator and namesake of the president was removed from power.

In a few months, the Philippine National Police (PNP) will be capable of managing the NPA threat as a peace and order problem rather than as a national security threat.

That would free the Army to train, equip, and fight an emerging external threat as rivalry and big power competition heats up in the region.

“The external security environment is becoming more complex, it is becoming more unpredictable,” Marcos said, promising his administration “remained committed to modernizing the Armed Forces so no threat will be impossible to handle.”

“We will continue to invest not only in modern equipment and material but also in your training, so you can keep abreast of concepts, doctrines, [and] strategies that we now need in the modern battlefield,” he added.

Marcos also wanted the Armed Forces to improve its relations with counterparts overseas.

“Common security challenges necessitate a more concerted approach among like-minded nations,” he said. “Share information, learn from the best practices in the region to make our military better.”

That is what the Army and the other armed services have started doing in this year’s iteration of the “Salacnib” and “Balikatan” exercises with the United States.

US soldiers have allowed local troops hands-on training on modern and sophisticated weapons, like the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles and the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

These two advanced, high-tech weapons systems were among the equipment sent by the United States to Ukraine to help repel Russian invasion in its eastern and southern corridors.

Next month, the United States will demonstrate the actual capability of its MIM104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles during the joint and combined Balikatan exercises in northern Luzon.

The weapons system, which the US has also sent to Ukraine, actually stands for Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target.

But there’s more. US soldiers have also started training local troops on how to defeat small drones as future wars will be fought by unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned surface and sub-surface vessels.

Senior army commanders who have been closely following wars in Ukraine as well as in Armenia and Azerbaijan were curious on how drones were used in the battlefield.

In 2017, the Philippines had its taste of drone wars when the Islamic State-linked Maute group that occupied Marawi City deployed commercially available drones to monitor soldiers’ movement and pinpoint actual positions in an urban combat setting.

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) has started procuring some Israeli-manufactured surveillance drones and accepted US donations of ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles to improve maritime domain awareness.

But it lagged behind other Southeast Asian countries in acquiring Turkish armed drones. The Philippine Navy also blew an opportunity to acquire an unmanned surface vessel when it turned down an offer from Turkey to supply some Off-Shore Patrol Vessels for P30 billion.

Turkey had offered sea-based drones to sweeten the OPV deal but the navy and defense department opted to acquire the OPVs from a South Korean shipyard. It also acquired guided-missile frigates and corvettes from the same South Korean shipyard.

Marcos needs more that P300 billion to complete the first and second phase of the three-phased, 15-year military modernization program that started in 2012.

It still has no funds for the third phase of the program, which includes the acquisition of submarines, missiles, multirole fighters, and strategic sealift and airlift.

The Philippines modernization program started in 1995 after the Senate voted to kick out the Americans from their two large overseas military bases in Clark and Subic.

The two US military bases served as the country’s security umbrella for decades as dictator Ferdinand Marcos focused on defeating domestic threats from the Communist and Muslim secessionist rebels.

The Philippines’s weakness was exposed after the Americans left their bases. It had no radars, no fighters, no warships, and no missiles to match other countries in the region.

Under President Fidel Ramos, a P150-billion, 15-year military modernization program was passed in 1995 but lawmakers approved only a P50-billion fund.

But the real military upgrade happened only under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and under President Benigno Aquino III.

The modernization program accelerated under Rodrigo Duterte but it overspent. Marcos will have to rationalize what the Armed Forces would really need to play catchup with its neighbors and develop a minimum credible defense capability.

Barely a year into office, Marcos has to show he really wants to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines by investing more in its weapons systems, training and international cooperation.

Like his father, he cannot completely rely on the United States to assist the Philippines on its external defense.

It is not enough the Americans have been allowing local troops to try and use advanced weapons systems, like Javelin missiles, HIMARS, and Patriot theater-wide surface-to-air defense missiles, but the Philippines needs to acquire these expensive systems.

Marcos can leverage the country’s strategic location to cut some deals with its allies, like the United States and Japan, to help upgrade the military’s capabilities and share in the burden in keeping the balance of power in the region.

The Philippines cannot afford to be the weakest link. It has to prepare for future wars. It has to modernize quickly.

It has to acquire the weapons systems the United States has allowed it to use during this year’s “Salacnib” and “Balikatan” exercises.