By Jose Antonio Custodio
Custodio is a consultant on security and defense for both the government and private sector. He also occasionally teaches history at several academic institutions in Metro Manila.
Last 4 October 2010 I was allowed to attend the Realignment and the Assumption of Command Ceremony of the 19th Fighter Squadron of the United States Air Force which was held in a hangar of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam at Hawaii.
This gave me a rare opportunity to witness an evolving historic moment in the security and defense environment in the Asia Pacific Region. In the past months, the region has seen a gradual influx of US military assets of which the most prominent is the deployment of the F-22 Raptor. The Lockheed Martin F-22 is considered as the premiere air superiority fighter plane in the world and in exercises within the USAF, it has bested older generation aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16. These two latter aircraft are at par with those of the former Eastern Bloc countries especially the Su-27, the MiG 29, and their derivatives.
Chinese aircraft in production are still within the generation of the F-15 and F-16 if not even less capable as compared to the later blocks of these two USAF aircraft. What more then compared to the F-22? Thus the movement of the 19th FS with its F-22s to Hawaii reinforces the already predominant position that the United States of America has in the Asia Pacific Region.
However grand as this depiction I portrayed of the importance of the F-22 Raptor, in contrast the ceremonies marking the occasion of realignment and change of command were simple and very un-dramatic. It had that typical American workmanlike attitude in its approach wherein there was no bombast which is common in other cultures. If there indeed was something approaching bombast it was the praise given by the speakers to the 19th FS as being the best fighter squadron not only of the USAF but in the entire world. Presumably the Israelis would complain, but then again, they do not have the Raptor yet.
What did stand out in the ceremonies was not just the impressive looking F-22 that looked like something out of Star Trek parked at the right side of the stage but of the speeches delivered by the commanding officers of the 19th FS and other units in Hickam. These were not speeches that droned on and on about the personal accomplishments of so and so person, but instead it reached back into the traditions and records of those who had served in the 19th FS during the First World War, Pearl Harbor, during the Cold War, and it was the duty of the present generation of officers and personnel to continue the legacy.
And where did this leave me, a foreign observer of this ceremony? It made me wonder about the state of my country's military. From being one of Asia's best in the 1930s up to the 1960s, the Armed Forces of the Philippines became one of the weakest and most dependent on foreign assistance due to bad governance, internal dissent, and factionalism. The Philippine Air Force cannot even be called a shadow of its former glory as it simply has no more combat aircraft that can survive in a modern battlefield environment. In fact, if any of the rebel organizations in the Philippines do manage to get their hands on portable surface to air missiles then they will neutralize the entire PAF which relies mostly on propeller driven aircraft for combat operations. Its only remaining jet aircraft is a tiny trainer that is even slower than a Second World War P-51 Mustang fighter.
Thus, what role will the Philippines play in this drama unfolding in the Asia Pacific Region? As the United States beefs up its forces and as the Chinese become more bellicose and even the Indians wanting to come into Southeast Asia, where will the Philippines fit into this? Up to this very moment, the country is unsure as to how to define its relationship with the United States of America and how to approach the Mutual Defense Treaty. Though we expect the Americans to defend us, we cannot even defend the Americans. After all, it is called a mutual defense treaty as in the Americans have their responsibilities while the Philippines also has its own responsibilities to the alliance.
For all intents and purposes, the Philippines is just turning into real estate upon which the US and eventually China will play upon as the government within cannot make up its mind as to what direction and choices to take. Due to the decrepit nature of the military hardware of the Philippine military and the long tradition of American military assistance, the Philippine government continues to view the US in terms of a dependency framework.
The thing is, since the closure of the Clark and Subic, the assistance rendered by the Americans, even with the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement has tremendously shrunken and has more reviews and controls upon its usage than before. Assistance provided to Philippine civil and military agencies in matters of defense and security should produce sustained positive results and not fiascos like how despite all the training provided by the Americans since 9-11, the Philippine government and its security forces could not even conduct a proper rescue attempt of foreign nationals held by one lone gunman.
Now that the US is in recession, it is not wise for the Philippines to expect huge amounts of aid that will come pouring in. Instead expect the Americans to demand results to ensure that the money provided was well spent. Expect also the Americans to redefine an alliance in a way that will surprise Filipinos who have become accustomed to and have always expected the largesse of the past. It is time for the Philippines to get its act together.