The United States has promised to deliver two four-engine turbo-prop, heavy lift C-130T Lockheed Martin Hercules transport aircraft to the Philippine Air Force. 

It will be the second time in six years the Philippines will receive an old transport aircraft from the United States, its long-time security ally and former colonial master.

But these planes are not free. Manila will have to pay P2.9 billion for the second-hand aircraft under the US State Department’s Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program.

Washington gave a P900-million discount after it offered to pay the amount under another program called Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The United States has been providing military assistance to its allies and partners around the world, including the Philippines, through programs such as EDA and FMF.

In fact, the Philippines is by far the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region.  

Since 2015, the United States has delivered more than 33 billion pesos, or $650 million, worth of planes, ships, armored vehicles, small arms, and other military equipment to the Philippines.

But most of the big-ticket items the Philippines got from the United States were refurbished second-hand equipment, like three former US Coast Guard weather high endurance cutters, Vietnam War-era combat utility helicopters and transport planes.

The Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) said the aircraft would be a big boost to the air force’s heavy lift capabilities at the time of the coronavirus pandemic when the government has to deliver medical supplies, like test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPEs) from Manila to the regions.

The air force has five old C-130 aircraft but only two are in good flying condition. These are the C-130T planes that were acquired in 2014 by the administration of then President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III under the same but slightly expensive terms. There were three older C-130B/H, and one of the planes might be repaired, overhauled and restored to flying condition.

All these planes are operated by the 222nd airlift squadron of the 220th airlift wing based in Benito Ebuen Air Base on Mactan island in central Philippines.

According to Director Arsenio Andolong, spokesman for the Department of National Defense, the military has been trying to conserve the limited flying hours of the aircraft by using the planes only for essential logistics runs, like fetching thousands of PPEs that the government bought from China and delivering them and other medical equipment and supplies outside Manila.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has also stopped the air force from ferrying stranded residents in the capital to the provinces to cut down on the number of flying hours and delay the next scheduled preventive maintenance abroad.

Lorenzana’s directive must change the mind-set of defense and military planners on getting mothballed equipment from the United States.

The old practice of acquiring old and second-hand equipment from the United States must stop. The hardware might be more expensive because these are less fuel-efficient, require frequent preventive maintenance and have a shorter life span.

The defense and military establishments must also listen to its commander in chief, President Rodrigo Duterte, who announced early in his administration that he wanted to stop acquiring old and second-hand equipment from the United States.

Duterte wanted brand-new equipment and has given the military a go-signal to procure modern but cheaper hardware from other countries, like Israel, Indonesia, South Korea and European countries, including Poland and Turkey.

In early 2018, he issued a directive to source brand-new equipment from countries other than the United States and Canada after they imposed restrictions on arms sales due to his administration’s human rights record.

Even before Duterte rose to power in 2016, the military has been acquiring cheaper brand-new planes, ships, drones and armored vehicles from other countries that manufactured equipment using US components, design and technology.

Its first-ever missile-capable, semi-stealth frigates, lead-in trainer fighters and amphibious assault vehicles were from South Korea. The military’s strategic sealift vessels and medium transport planes were from Indonesia. The Navy’s two anti-submarine helicopters were from a British aerospace company and the Air Force’s combat utility helicopters about to be delivered are from Poland.

It has also chosen a company based in Turkey to supply the air force with attack helicopters and awarded an Australian shipyard a deal for six offshore patrol vessels.

It’s about time the Philippines acquired equipment outside the United States, which for a long time has used its special relations to dump obsolete equipment to the country.

Washington has turned its poor security allies into a profitable market for US-based defense suppliers, which made tons of money out of FMF and EDA programs to sell junk.

For instance, during the administration of then President Corazon Aquino, Washington tried to dissuade the Philippine Army from buying the British-made Simba armored vehicle by offering the old V-150.

When Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was president, Washington also forced Manila to buy old UH-1H helicopters on “as is, where is” basis after it tried to withhold an “end-user certificate” for the refurbished choppers with night-flying capability from Singapore.

Sometimes, the cost of acquiring the old equipment from the US comes close to buying a brand-new from other countries.

Some of the old equipment that the United States sold or transferred under its security assistance programs ended up as sources of spare parts to extend the lives of the same old equipment in its inventory. In local terminology, the military “cannibalized” the equipment because the American suppliers no longer manufactured the plane or shipped models. 

This old practice must stop. The country must demand better equipment from the Americans if they really wanted to help the Philippines build a modest defense capability.

How can the Philippines share the burden of preserving regional security and stability if an ally cannot operate at par with American forces because of old and unreliable equipment?

In the past joint and combined “Balikatan” exercises, Filipino troops only watched in amazement when their American counterparts demonstrated the use of advanced fighters, like the F-35, or even the sophisticated battery of M142 high mobility artillery rocket system (Himars).

The Philippines can become a true security partner if its military forces operate equipment at par with what the US military uses, and not an obsolete equipment that American soldiers are no longer familiar with.

The Philippines is no longer an American colony. The US must learn to trust the Philippines as a security partner just as it trusted the Japanese and South Koreans by providing them with modern equipment.

It can start channeling its security assistance programs by increasing aid to acquire not-so-obsolete equipment or better yet brand-new ones. These old US ships and planes are best displayed in military museums and not in the Philippines, where remnants of World War 2 minesweepers and destroyer escorts are still patrolling the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. The Philippines deserved better treatment from the United States as an equal partner, not as a second-rate ally.