AFP modernization, What's the score?

(First of two parts)

The Philippines was second to none in military might among countries in Southeast Asia, but that was long, long time ago.

Today, by twist of fate, the Philippines found itself at the bottom, gasping for breath trying to save whatever it could on its remaining aging aircraft and warships in its arsenal.

What a pitiful sight, considering that shortly after World War II, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was the envy of many neighboring nations as the AFP had on its inventory an array of modern weapons supplied by the United States - the F-86 Sabre jet-fighter bombers, a variety of aircraft, including C-123 transport planes, C-47s, for the Philippine Air Force, and several frigates, patrol ships, fast patrol crafts, landing ship tanks, armored vehicles, tanks, to name a few for the Philippine Navy.

In the 1950s, the PAF had in its arsenal more than 80 F-86 fighter planes and a fleet of transport helicopters. The PAF was really a force to reckon with.

By 1965, the Air Force received 25 brand-new supersonic F-5A/B fighter planes from America as part of the RP-US Military Assistance Program.

The Philippines was one of the first recipients of the F-5s "Freedom Fighters" among the U.S. allies the world over. In addition, the PAF also got over 140 UH-1H "Huey" helicopters, further boosting its air power.

Its foot soldiers were armed with the sophisticated weapons available at that time such as M1 Garand rifles, automatic Carbine rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR), Thompson sub-machine guns, bazookas, howitzers and many more. Name it, the AFP had it.

Throughout the 1960s, the Philippines was on top in terms of air and naval power. The PAF had about 100 jet fighter-bombers as its first line of defense in guarding the country's airspace while the Philippine Navy had close to 200 warships of various types.

By 1970, the AFP started to draw up a modernization program in anticipation of its air and naval assets to be phased out in the years to come.

However, before the modernization program could take off, the Mindanao secessionist war erupted in 1973. The AFP was at the forefront of the fighting. Many of its assets were destroyed. Replacements were in order.

In 1979, the PAF got a squadron of F-8 Crusader fighter-bombers from the United States as part of the RP-US Military Assistance Program. The F-8s and the F-5s formed the first line of defense for the AFP.

The F-8s were in service for only a decade as the Air Force decided to phase out the aircraft because the Crusaders consumed too much gas, according to Maj. Gen. Jose Toy E. Villarete, AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans (J-5).

Villarete, an F-5 fighter pilot with over 3,000 hours flying time, said that the F-8, which is carrier-based aircraft, was very expensive to maintain "because we have to dump all the aviation gas before we could land."

In the late 1980s, the PAF got 30 S-211 jet trainers from Italy. The delivery was a big boost to the Air Force's training program of future pilots.

Almost at the same time, the Air Force received 25 MG-500 attack helicopters it ordered from the United States. The PAF also purchased a fleet of Bell Transport helicopters.

But over the years, due to wear and tear, the PAF's air assets continued to deplete.

On the other hand, the Philippine Navy is also in a sorry state. Most of its warships are of World War II vintage.

Considering that the Philippines is an archipelagic country, the Navy badly needs ships to patrol the vast territorial waters the coastline of which is more than twice as long as that of the United States.

Yet, it has no new vessels and is forced to maintain aging warships to secure the country's territorial waters.

In 1990, Defense reporters were invited by the Navy to ride one of its warships -- the BRP Quezon.

The vessel left the Navy's headquarters at Roxas Boulevard and was bound for Sangley Point in Cavite City. But it took more than four hours to reach its destination, prompting a reporter to say that it was faster for a man to walk briskly to negotiate the distance in an hour than to take the dilapidated and slow-moving Navy ship.

Twenty years had passed since then, but still the Philippine Navy has no new ships to replace its aging ones which were long destined to the scraps, while the Philippine Air Force has no fighter aircraft to speak of after its F-5 planes were retired in 2004.

It may be recalled that in 1995, Congress enacted Republic Act No. 7898, otherwise known as the AFP Modernization Act.

Congress has allocated P331 billion for a 15-year AFP Modernization Program.

However, only P30 billion had been used to acquire new equipment for the military. The remaining P300 billion is still up in the air. (To be continued)