The administration of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has requested the bicameral Congress to provide at least a P40 billion in the 2023 budget to upgrade military capability.

The military modernization fund would be the biggest ever since 2012 when the revised law allowed the Armed Forces to acquire new ships, planes, tanks, and other equipment to catch up with Southeast Asian neighbors.

But the Department of National Defense believed the fund would still not be enough to cover two of the three phases of the 15-year modernization program even if the Marcos administration allocated P40 billion annually until 2028.

Originally, Congress approved a P300-billion modernization program until 2028, dividing it into three phases or horizons.

But the military may have overspent in the first two phases, committing to more than P500 billion in outlays.

In the first phase under the administration of the late president Benigno Aquino III, from 2013 to 2017, a total of 53 military modernization projects amounting to a little over P97 billion were approved.

As of June 2022, 33 projects were completed. Twenty projects worth more than P46 billion are still in various stages of completion but the funds have been obligated.

In the second phase under the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte, from 2018 to 2022, a total of 96 projects worth P425.87 billion were approved. But only 13 projects were completed. More than 80 projects costing over P402 billion still needed to be completed. Some of the projects under the second phase still have no funding.

The defense department said it would need more than P332 billion to complete the two phases. Based on its projection, the P40-billion annual allocation under the Marcos administration will not be sufficient to cover the two phases.

Another P80 billion under the next administration would be needed to finish all 149 projects in the two phases.

What will happen is that all projects under the third phase, under the Marcos administration, from 2023 to 2028, will still have no funding.

The entire modernization program could be completed after two more administrations because of the increase in prices of military equipment due to inflation, stretching the program from 15 years to 25 years.

By the time the military has acquired the desired equipment planned in 2012 under its modernization program, some of them could be obsolete due to the rapid development in military technology.

There is a need to constantly revise the program to cope with the new trends that saw militaries operating armed drones, not only aerial but vessels, as well as hypersonic precision missile systems.

Army Lt. Gen. Vicente Bartolome Bacarro, the Armed Forces chief of staff, said the defense department has ordered a review of the modernization program to determine needs and to prioritize the equipment to be acquired under the Marcos administration.

What went wrong in the military modernization program under Duterte? Did the administration overspend, exceeding the original P300-billion budget?

It appeared the Duterte administration might have approved a budget of more than 100% from the original plan. The costs of the military equipment could have gone up due to inflation.

For instance, the Australian shipbuilder Austal had agreed to build six Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) for P30 billion but two years after the coronavirus pandemic, it wanted to raise the cost of the warships to P42 billion.

The Philippines backed out of the deal and invited three other countries — Israel, South Korea and Turkey — to bid for the same project at the cost of P30 billion.

However, most decisions made to acquire military equipment were based on political considerations without consulting the end users — the military.

These resulted in problems in sustainability or inadequate logistics as well as cost overruns.

For instance, the cost of the six OPVs exceeded the P30 billion pegged by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). The squadron of FA-50 light fighters, which were also acquired from South Korea, had no adequate spare parts under the contract.

It was the same story for eight Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) for the Philippine Marines. Thus, most of the fighters and AAVs were sidelined and were non-operational until the spare parts arrived.

Worse, the political leadership arbitrarily changed the rules of the game during negotiations without consulting the end users. For the OPV project, the Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) removed two important and crucial requirements for the contract — in-country production and transfer of technology.

Normally, the defense department would go back to the tedious process of approving the certificate of requirements (COR) or the terms of references, which would take time if there were changes in the contract requirement.

But the BAC unilaterally changed the rules. It even did not inform all the proponents of the project about the changes.

There were many speculations why it was suddenly awarded to the South Koreans but the defense department defended its actions, saying it had to rush the award of the contract due to national security considerations.

When politicians decide on what equipment to acquire and from whom, it creates a big problem for the military. It disturbs the entire process, including the military’s table of equipment, doctrines, training, and logistics.

Acquiring a plane, a ship, or an armored vehicle is not as easy as buying it from a shelf, like a Toyota sedan from a car dealer. There is a whole system that goes with it.

For instance, it would take 10 years to prepare for the Philippine Navy to acquire a conventional diesel-electric submarine, which includes training, building a base, and logistics requirements, as well as putting out a naval doctrine, and strategies and plans.

Some of the acquisitions under the Duterte administration were also not well-thought-out, like the purchase of 16 Russian Mi-17 heavy-lift rotary aircraft.

The Philippines has no experience in flying Russian helicopters and is not familiar with how it operates. The manuals for the helicopter have to be translated into English.

But Duterte had committed to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to acquire the helicopters during a visit to Moscow before the pandemic. Duterte had been to Russia twice and had met with Putin more than twice, including in Peru during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

The government did not take into consideration the sanctions imposed by the United States when Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

As a result, the country lost the nearly P2 billion it had paid as downpayment for the Mi-17 helicopters.

Earlier, it had to pay cash for hundreds of Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to skirt the US sanctions for Russian involvement in Syria and the annexation of Crimea.

For decades, the Philippines has been relying on its old military ally, the United States, for armaments, but Washington has been transferring only second-hand and mothballed vessels, aircraft, and even small arms.

The Philippines was turned into a junkyard for old and obsolete US equipment.

But this changed under the administration of US President Donald Trump when the Pentagon and the US State Department turned over brand-new equipment, like ScanEagle drones and state-of-the-art reconnaissance and surveillance equipment installed on aircraft.

The US has transferred more than $600 million worth of equipment to the Philippines in the last five years. It has offered to sell F-16 fighters for $2.4 billion, including training and logistics that will ensure that the planes could fly for five years.

The US also gave end-user certificates to acquire brand-new helicopters and other equipment that the Philippines had bought from other countries, like Turkey and Poland.

The Philippines does not need to rely on the United States for its military equipment. It has to diversify its sources of armaments. But there should be no shortcuts in acquiring them. It should follow the processes.

Some people see business opportunities in military procurement. There should also be less political meddling that could disrupt the logistics processes.

The military should be allowed to decide the best equipment to acquire, which would help them carry out their mandated mission to protect the national interest as well as the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.