Sunday, January 30, 2011
'PABAON' CLOUDS U-S AIDED P-H DEFENSE REFORMS
Philippine and American officials led by Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell were holding their first-ever strategic dialogue just as a growing corruption scandal involving the country’s former military chiefs was swirling in Manila.
Campbell assured US help to boost the Philippine’s territorial defense and maritime security capability.
The meetings took place as former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) budget officer, Lt. Col. George Rabusa, revealed in Congress the practice of giving hundreds of millions of pesos as “pabaon” or farewell gift to retiring AFP Chiefs of Staff.
Congress was looking into the suspicious plea bargain agreement between former AFP comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia and prosecutors in the Office of the Ombudsman.
A former state auditor, Heidi Mendoza, broke her silence to protest the Garcia plea bargain.
She was one of six members of a Commission on Audit (COA) team that investigated Garcia’s financial transactions in 2004-2006 and divulged in a report by Ellen Tordesilla and Yvonne Chua of VERA Files, how he managed to divert P200 million from the UN fund.
Mendoza indicated, in a separate interview with ABS-CBN’s Ces Drilon that Garcia also dipped his fingers into funds for the Balikatan, the yearly PH-US military exercise.
The US has committed $45 million for the multi-year Philippine Defense Reform (PDR) program that aims to minimize corruption and make the military’s financial dealings more transparent, among others.
Started in 2000, the PDR was supposed to be fully in place by 2011. “The basis of the reform should be laid in stone in 2010. It stops from being a reform and starts being a normal process,” then Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said.
Military officials have admitted fund diversions routinely happen in the cash-strapped military.
It’s uncertain how this will affect future US assistance – critical for a military long dependent on foreign help.
Under the PDR, the AFP plans to spend about $125 million a year for modernization.
Philippine Navy chief, Rear Admiral Alexander Pama, revealed plans to acquire a Hamilton-class cutter from the US, possibly through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
The Hamilton-class is a 3,250-ton, weather high endurance cutter (WHEC) with a range of 14,000 miles and top speed of 29 knots. It has a flight deck with retractable hangar and its main weapon is an Otobreda 76mm gun that can fire 85 rounds per minute.
If the acquisition pushes through, she will be the newest and biggest ship in the Philippine Navy.
The US has sold, donated or leased over 40 warships and scores more of smaller patrol crafts to the Philippine Navy since the early 1950s. Many were acquired third-hand after the Vietnamese and Cambodian navies escaped the communist takeover by sailing to Subic Bay.
The Philippine Fleet is composed of one frigate (Cannon-class), the flagship Rajah Humabon that was built in 1943; 13 corvettes, 59 patrol crafts and 8 transport ships.
The PN acquired three Peacock-class fast patrol boats when Britain relinquished control of Hongkong to China in 1997.
Among its more recent acquisitions from the US were a Cyclone-class patrol boat, the Mariano Alvarez; two Besson-class logistic support vessels (LSVs); and 24 Halter-Marine 78-foot fast patrol crafts (PCFs) that were procured as part of US rent payments for Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, before the Philippine Senate voted to close them down.
PN officials say only half of their total ships are operational (only 2 of their transport ships – a critical component for an archipelago – can actually put out to sea).
The renewed US interest in strengthening the Philippine Navy stems in part to a March 2009 incident involving the USNS Impeccable that was harassed in the South China Sea, which China claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, according to a paper written by Renato de Castro and Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation.
“The AFP needs new defense materiel to execute territorial security operations,” they wrote, adding the military is in a “sensitive transition phase from internal security priority to territorial defense.”
They pointed out that US help is needed to “erode the inertia against changes in the Philippine military”.