Wanted: New PH warships, bigger number of troops

by Ira Pedrasa, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Jan 15 2014 01:46 PM | Updated as of Jan 15 2014 11:11 PM

MANILA - Amid new threats from China and internal sources of terrorism, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is set to acquire more defense equipment, including two more navy ships from the United States.

AFP chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista recognized the “real threat out there in terms of securing and defending our territory” that there is a need to boost capabilities.

Ideally, the Philippines would need six frigates for the purpose of securing the West Philippine Sea, he told ANC.

“[And] we’re already acquiring and bidding for two more frigates. Hopefully, we will be able to acquire those in a couple of years,” said Bautista, who said this will be part of his legacy. He is retiring this July.

At present, the country has two warships: the BRP Gregorio del Pilar that is stationed in Palawan and BRP Ramon Alcaraz, which is currently still helping in the relief efforts in the Yolanda-struck areas.

He said he has made "maritime domain awareness" and protection a key concern of his leadership.

The funds used to boost maritime defense, he said, would come from the $40 million military assistance pledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry in December.

The Philippines, a long-time US military ally, has been locked in an increasingly tense standoff with China involving disputed reefs and islands in an area Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

In 2012, the flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the first acquired from the US, confronted Chinese ships on Scarborough Shoal, a small outcrop just off the coast of the country's main island of Luzon.

The Chinese eventually gained control of the outcrop after Manila backed down. However, the government sought UN arbitration to settle the dispute, a move rejected by China.

Manila has also increasingly looked to the US for help, and negotiations are ongoing for an increased rotational presence of American soldiers in the Philippines as part of Washington's "pivot" to Asia.

Bautista said the Gregorio del Pilar, as well as another frigate that arrived last year, have been deployed to protect the country's waters.

"There are Chinese fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea as we speak," he said, but declined to say where they were in the disputed waters.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters near the coast of its neighbors.

Recently, it has declared an "air defense identification zone" over the East China Sea where it is engaged in a dispute with Japan.

Kerry has warned China against imposing a similar restriction over the South China Sea, and said the US government also rejected the zone over the East China Sea.

Last week China also announced a new fisheries law requiring foreign vessels to seek permits for activities in much of the South China Sea, in another move that triggered angry protests from Manila.

Recruitment of soldiers

Bautista also noted that the Philippine military has demonstrated that it can take on non-traditional threats such as disasters.

He said this is why the AFP is also looking to “conclude” the insurgency in order that the country will already face “the more pressing concerns.”

In his less than a year as chief of staff, Bautista faced major issues that challenged the capability of the military. Besides the havoc of Yolanda, there was also the standoff between the military and the followers of Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari in Zamboanga City.

“Because of Zamboanga, we’re now enhancing our counter-terrorism capabilities. We are expanding our units that are trained and prepared for counter-terrorist activities,” he said.

In the next three years, the AFP will add 20,000 troops “to address all our mandates…We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Around P7 billion to P10 billion is needed to boost personnel services, he said.

“We are expanding our unit from a battalion-sized formation to a regimental-sized formation,” Bautista said.

A battalion is about 300 to 500 soldiers, while a regiment is composed of two to three battalions.

Even before he became chief of the AFP, Bautista spearheaded the crafting of the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan, the government’s national security strategy. – with reports from Agence France-Presse