In 2003, President George W. Bush designated the Philippines as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo supported Washington’s global war on terror to punish Islamist militants behind the World Trade Center attack on September 11.

Arroyo sent a token 50-member military contingent to Iraq under Army Brig. Gen. Jovito Palparan to help in the civil-military operations, winning the hearts and minds of the Sunni Iraqi people as a non-combatant force.

Bush had rewarded Arroyo an important and strategic “major non-NATO ally” designation during a short visit to Manila that year, reaffirming the two allies’ rock-solid partnership under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Getting designated as an important ally puts the country at par with Egypt, Israel, Jordan and other allies, which get a large chunk of US annual military assistance.

Egypt and Israel are getting about $1 billion apiece in aid, allowing the two countries to upgrade their weapons system in exchange for keeping the peace in the Middle East.

Pakistan also gets a large share for allowing US forces to use the country as a staging point for attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq during the war on terror, which ended up in the South Asian country’s own backyard in 2011 when al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed in a daring nighttime raid in Abbottabad.

Did the country reap its rewards for supporting Bush’s war?

From 2004 until the end of Barack Obama’s administration in 2016, the United States has treated the Philippines as a junkyard for its mothballed aircraft and warships and has rejected efforts to upgrade its defense capability with new equipment.

For instance, the US sold second-hand Bell helicopters and used coast guard cutters but denied requests for precision bombs to defeat the Abu Sayyaf Group in the southern Philippines.

Of course, the armed forces would argue that the second-hand aircraft are in top condition when delivered under a “hot transfer” program, meaning the equipment are in operational condition and are still in actual use by US armed forces.

The Philippines has not really taken advantage of the major non-NATO ally designation as it continued to acquire second-hand ships and aircraft instead of state-of-the-art and brand-new equipment.

But why would the Philippines be satisfied with used military equipment when it can acquire brand-new helicopters, ships and transport planes?

The July 4 crash of a C-130H transport aircraft, which killed 52 people, should be a hard lesson for the Philippines to learn to aim high for better but more affordable aircraft.

Why can’t the United States give the Philippines more funding to build a modest and credible defense capability and help in securing a stable security environment in the region instead of making the country a burden?

Washington is paying a heavy price for peace in the Middle East by supporting Egypt and Israel with $1 billion apiece. Is security in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea less important to the United States?

The military aid program for the region would be about less than $300 million a year combined, with the Philippines getting the lion’s share as its former colony and oldest ally in the region.

The United States can actually invest more in the Philippines to strengthen its external defense capability. However, Washington still looks to the country as a market for its second-hand equipment, allowing its military-industrial complex to earn millions of dollars from junk.

These old equipment could be less reliable, require frequent maintenance and are fuel guzzlers. In fact, the former USS Hamilton-class coast guard cutter, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, spent more time in the docks than patrolling the West Philippine Sea due to fuel consumption and maintenance issues.

The air force has grounded its fleet of used UH-1 helicopters due to flight safety concerns after a fatal crash early this year. The recent crash of the C-130H aircraft had also left the air force with no option but to halt operating its remaining operational transport aircraft.

The Philippines is not actually helpless. It has started diversifying its sources of military equipment, acquiring frigates, light fighters and amphibious assault vehicles from South Korea; medium transport aircraft and strategic sealift vessels from Indonesia; attack helicopters from Turkey; combat utility helicopters from Poland; anti-submarine helicopters from an Anglo-Italian aerospace company; and ground support aircraft from Brazil.

The United States has started to sell brand-new equipment like helicopters and fighters but at a premium. The cost is too prohibitive.

For instance, it recently offered to sell a squadron of F-16C/D Viper fighters for $2.3 billion when the Philippines has set aside only $1.3 billion for the project.

Last year, it offered Apache and Viper helicopters which were beyond the country’s budget. In the end, Manila bought S-70i Black Hawk helicopters from Poland.

The US offer makes it impossible to acquire brand-new equipment and only allows the country to acquire second-hand equipment.

It is, in fact, negotiating to acquire three Cyclone-class patrol boats, which the US Navy and Coast Guard are retiring within the year.

Manila is not only seen as a market for junk equipment, it is also vulnerable to political sanctions as Washington under the Biden administration has expressed increasing concern over human rights in the Philippines.

Some US Democrat senators, close allies of President Biden, are reviving moves to withhold military assistance to the Philippines because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s poor human rights record, including the continued jailing of a sitting senator on trumped-up drug charges.

The country’s defense contracts with some Western European countries, like France, Great Britain, and Sweden which might be selling JAS 39 Gripen fighters, could also be affected by human rights sanctions.

The time has come for the Philippines to look for other defense suppliers that could offer more affordable but quality military equipment.

There are a lot of countries that are willing to sell equipment but do not tie the sale to the human rights situation in the country.

Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, and South Korea have sold military equipment without political strings attached. Russia has offered helicopters and other equipment for a better price but the US has continued to block any sale, invoking the security alliance it has with the country.

For instance, Duterte has committed to getting from Moscow a squadron of Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters but Washington continues to oppose it, delaying the process.

The Philippines has signed a meager deal to acquire rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from Russia in 2017 but the equipment could not be delivered because of US opposition. Instead, it wanted to supply Bulgarian-made RPGs, denying its main rival and competitor.

The arms market is a thriving industry even in the time of the pandemic but the United States is making it hard for the country to look for other sources of defense equipment.

The US has been using its special relations to make the country dependent on its equipment as a market for old and obsolete equipment.

It is about time to cut the umbilical cord from Washington and diversify the sources for military equipment for the country. Maybe, it could prevent another C-130 crash and save precious lives.