Monday, June 02, 2003

Rebuilding the Armed Forces of the Philippines

This essay is an attempt to sketch out a general approach to reforming the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Belmont Club has long argued that until the Armed Forces of the Philippines is given a victory option over the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, that the war in Mindanao will drag on ad infinitum, to the misery of all concerned. The general arguments and figures suggested here are order of magnitude only, and are intended to stimulate discussion as a first step toward that goal.

The basis of military power

On paper, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is a formidable fighting force. It consists of 8 Army divisions, with another being flagged, in addition to 10 Marine battalions, for a total of 10 infantry divisions equivalent, supported by 15 reserve divisions. Just how impressive these numbers are is underscored by the fact that the United States Army has only 10 active divisions and a few independent brigades with an almost equal number of reserve formations. Perhaps a more dramatic comparison is to note that the Australian Army has a mere 6 active infantry battalions -- smaller, on paper, than the Philippine Marine force alone.

Yet the true test of military capability is not numbers fielded, but combat power, which can be roughly expressed as the intensity of military force projected per unit of time. The Indonesian Army, though far larger than the Armed Forces of the Philippines, retreated before the Australian Army during the 1999 liberation of Timor. Neither the huge Indonesian Army, nor its militias, who might be considered the combat equivalent of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, could make the slightest impression on the apparently miniscule Australian Army. Clearly, numbers alone do not constitute effective military power.

Combat power does not derive entirely from the weapons and bravery of the soldiery, but from the organizational efficiency of the army which projects it. The United States and Australian military organizations are capable of timing the rendezvous between two supersonic aircraft over mid-ocean for refueling to the split second. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is incapable of arranging a rendezvous between soldier and his paycheck each month. The difference between the Philippine and US armies is as great as the difference between the Philippine and American telephone systems. Effective armies are the simply the armed expression of efficient societies.

The key to empowering the Armed Forces of the Philippines then, it to boost its combat power, not its numbers, in ways that leverage the most efficient aspects of Philippine society.

Mission sizing and endurance

As a notional goal, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should be capable of two simultaneous brigade sized operations for a sustained duration of at least three months, employing the full array of supporting arms. Alternatively, it should be capable of a sustaining a single battalion operation indefinitely with supporting arms. Put another way, the AFP should be able to apply round the clock offensive pressure on the Moro Islamists in battalion strength, with occasional operations involving at as many as two brigades.

Inasmuch as sustained operations require a rest-training-deployment cycle, with the year roughly divided into 4 months at base, 4 months in intensive mission training and 4 months executing, the AFP must have 7 to 8 brigades: a 2 1/2 division force. Although they might be notionally based 1 division to Luzon, 1 to Mindanao and a brigade in the Visayas, in practice, they should be regarded as a single force, capable of interchangeably performing missions anywhere in the archipelago.

The first step to increasing AFP combat power is to make it smaller.

Mobility and supporting fires

The ability to move a 8 brigades anywhere in the archipelago requires a revolution in AFP logistics and supporting arms. The key is tactical sealift. The principal volumetric and tonnage requirements consist of ammunition, food, petroleum products, vehicles and heavy weapons. Men are light. A single M-113 APC weighs more than an entire company of infantrymen. US Army field manuals require planners to provide 150 lbs per man per day in combat consumables, excluding equipment. Even allowing for the far more austere standards of the AFP, a two brigade operation will require about 4,000-6,000 tons of lift to move the force into position and support it's attack. It is a capacity which the current AFP doesn't have. But it could. The archipelagic nature of the Philippines means that nearly every part of the country is not far distant from the sea. For example, Pikit, Cotabato is a mere 85 kilometers from Illana Bay, where vessels of the Bacolod City (Frank Besson class) large landing craft/logistics type could land 2,000 tons of vehicles and supplies 3 to 4 hours of haulage from the zone of operations. If the Armed Forces of the Philippines were to devote sufficient resources to acquiring sealift assets, reduce the number of divisions from 10 to 2 1/2, and consolidate the vehicular assets, the mobility problem would be on the way to a solution.

The improved mobility should lead to the increased availability of supporting arms. It is a well known fact that the combat power of an infantry formation resides almost entirely in its crew-served and heavy weapons. Rifles, however fancy, don't have much punch. In a straight rifle and rocket propelled grenade fight, units of the AFP do not possess much of an edge on the Moro Islamists. The equation changes immediately if mortars, artillery and above all, abundant ammunition are available to the Philippine soldier. Although the Philippine Air Force will provide tactical air support when it can, the only supporting fire that Filipino troops can obtain day or night, rain or shine and which will respond within minutes is artillery. A properly sited 155 mm battery in Pikit will provide a fan of fire covering Midsayap, Kabacan and Datu Piang. Artillery is heavy, and its ammunition is heavier; it will not be available until the mobility problem, centered on sealift and enough prime movers, is solved. 

The second step is to make it more mobile and harder hitting.


The most damaging act of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was to capture the Armed Forces of the Philippines and turn it into his power base. The last years of the dictatorship saw Philippine institutions partitioned between rival political camps. One camp grafted itself onto Church institutions, nongovernment organizations and business organizations. The Marxists entrenched themselves in the university system and in certain sections of the mass media. And the dictator dug himself into the Armed Forces. Nearly 20 years after the EDSA revolution, many aspects of this division remain. If the Philippines is to survive, the Army, the academe,  mass media and the Church have to be "recaptured" by ordinary folk and restored to their normal functions. The Army has to become just an Army, the colleges just colleges, and the Church just the Church, again.

The key to recapturing the Army is to root it in a reserve system in which ordinary society is a full participant. The Belmont Club will expand on this in the future, but the spirit of the ideal reserve system is embodied in the fact that the deadliest fighter squadrons in the US Airforce and the most elite snipers in the Israeli Army consist of reservists. When the Armed Forces of the Philippines can approach the efficiency of Jollibee and approximate the persistence of Malabanan, then the end of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is truly near.

The third step is to make the AFP more efficient by regrounding it in civil society.