The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) modernization program relies on US matériel, training and aid. Majority of its big ticket items, such as airplanes, ships and helicopters, can only be acquired from US companies or its subsidiaries and partners in allied countries such as Israel, Brazil and Jordan. AFP officials insist that only US-made or those made by its allies are compatible with the current AFP weapons and systems. This is the biggest stumbling block to acquiring weapons from China or Russia.
This is also the reason why the threat of abrogating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was never credible. US military aid is closely linked to the extraterritorial rights and privileges US troops enjoy in the country. It is in Duterte’s interest to let funds flow to the AFP as he coddles military officials eager to get hold of “modern” weapons. They drool over fat sales contracts, as well as maintenance contracts from which they pocket kickbacks in the long term.
Outside Duterte’s outbursts, the VFA was never put into question despite its “unresolved” status. Military exercises pushed through in 2019. The Balikatan 2020 was postponed due to the pandemic but smaller exercises were launched. There have been no let-up of US military presence in Philippine seas where they launch war games and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
The high-level meeting of US and Philippine military officials of the Security Engagement Board pushed through in October 2020. US activities in the Philippines were set. Among these is the expected resumption of the Balikatan in May this year.
In exchange, the US has provided the AFP with big items in its modernization program for 2019-2020. Last February 17, the AFP inaugurated the first of two C-130 Hercules transport airplane in Villamor Airbase. In the February 13 ceremony where Duterte was guest, the AFP boasted of its new Philippine Air Force assets. Among these are six S70i Blackhawk transport helicopters and six A-29B Super Tucano attack airplanes. Also on display then were six Hermes 900 and four Hermes 450 drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The AFP also received missiles and a ScanEagle UAV system (with eight drones) during the last quarter of 2020. These were arranged under the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency which oversees the sale of old and mothballed US military matériel and vehicles.
The AFP also received donations from Jordan in the form of hundreds of M14 rifles and two old Bell AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters.
According to the US embassy in the country, the Philippines received the largest share in military aid in the Indo-Pacific region. From 2015 to 2020, up to P33 billion in aid has been delivered to the Philippines in the form of airplanes, ships, military vehicles, short arms and other matériel, it said. In addition, the US also allocated funds for the operation and military support through the Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P). In 2020, it spent almost ₱4 billion for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aerial support for military and police combat operations in Mindanao. The OPE-P is under the US’ Overseas Contingency Operations, previously known as its counter-terrorism operations.
In a Senate hearing last February 2020, Philippine foreign relations secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that the $245 million aid that the US planned to grant the AFP could be withheld if the VFA is abrogated. The AFP plans to acquire an additional 10 Black Hawk helicopters, six to eight ScanEagle UAV and howitzers.