Saturday, September 6, 2014
Outgunned General Seeks Armed Forces Upgrade
Outgunned general seeks armed forces upgrade Philippine military chief Gregorio Pio Catapang likens his task to a boxing match. Dwarfed by neighbors like China, with whom ties are strained, he’d like his forces to last at least a few rounds in the ring.
“Even if we are a bantam-weight fighting against a heavy weight, we are going to defend our sovereignty and national interest,” General Catapang, 55, said in an interview in his office in Manila yesterday. “We renounce war as a national foreign policy, but we will have to stand and show the world we are a principled country.”
Sitting in his office surrounded by history, philosophy and psychology books, Catapang, who has been on the job since July, sets out his priorities for an army that for years was occupied by an insurgency in the south. With China building artificial islands in the resource-rich South China Sea and boosting its naval presence to support its territorial claims, the focus for the Philippine military is turning outward.
Catapang is looking to boost defenses in Ulugan Bay on the island of Palawan, the Philippine military post about 160 kilometers from the disputed Spratly archipelago. He’s also seeking lawmakers’ approval for about $10 billion to buy fighter jets and warships to achieve a “world-class armed forces” by 2028. China’s defense budget this year is about 47 times that of the Philippines’ 123 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) – 1 percent of gross domestic product.
The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea, and have been at the center of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.
China is carrying out construction on some islands and shoals claimed by the Philippines and plans to erect five lighthouses there. The Philippines has sought international arbitration over its disputes with China, a process that the latter country refuses to join.
China is “projecting the image that they own the South China Sea, but it’s still under litigation,” Catapang said, adding he doesn’t view conflict with China as inevitable. “While it is being arbitrated, we want to show that we really own those islands. That’s why we’re putting the marines, the navy, the army in the islands that we possess.”
Under the first phase of the modernization plan which lasts until 2017, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, will buy three frigates to take its stock to six, Catapang, who is responsible for 120,000 servicemen and women, said. The military plans to increase its squadrons to three from one and install an early warning radar system and air defense artillery, he said.
“The modernization program is primarily focused on upgrading military capabilities, equipment and infrastructure,” Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in e-mailed comments. “It’s especially critical now, as the country faces threats to its security.”
Catapang, who is scheduled to retire in July next year, was an army commander who rose to become head of the Northern Luzon Command. In the 1980s, he joined the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, a group of junior military officers whose attempt to stage a coup against former dictator Ferdinand Marcos helped spur protests that led to Corazon Aquino, President Benigno Aquino’s mother, taking power.
The head of the military has traditionally been picked from among the most senior officials. The mandatory retirement age of 56 means most military chiefs serve for one to two years.
Catapang yesterday traveled to Fort Magsaysay in the northern province of Nueva Ecija to distribute new 5.56 millimeter M4 assault rifles to soldiers, as the military acquires 50,629 of the weapons. Eight combat utility helicopters and eight long-range patrol jets will arrive this year, Aquino said in July, while two of 12 FA-50 jets from South Korea will be delivered in 2015.
Equipment acquired from 2010 to 2014 included combat utility helicopters, troop carrier trucks and watercraft, according to the budget department.
The Philippines has replenished supplies to the Ayungin Shoal, where it scuttled a naval boat in 1999 to serve as an outpost, Catapang said, after China in March warned two Philippine boats near the disputed reef. In Ulugan Bay, the military needs about P4 billion to develop a base, build a runway and expand its 1,000 strong-troops, Catapang said.
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