THE Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore what is shaping up to be a bigger challenge for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), even as the 150,000-strong organization has to contend with internal and external security threats.
At the frontlines, a good number of soldiers were infected by the virus, consequently affecting the operational efficiency of the military. Even the funding of the AFP’s modernization program was not spared since certain funds allotted previously to acquire military hardware had to be realigned to respond to the Covid-19 public health crisis
According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, about P19.3 billion in unobligated modernization funds for this year were realigned to help finance the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus, thus putting on hold at least 15 military procurements.
Among the acquisitions that were deferred for next year, or even in the next succeeding years, are five big-ticket items that included landing dock vessels for the Navy, with an allocation of P800 million, and medium-lift aircraft for the Air Force with a P264-million allotment.
It also included the P3.5-billion C4ISTAR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) vehicle acquisition worth P2.2 billion and the procurement of light tanks worth P1.4 billion, all for the Army.
Officials said other equally important procurements have been sidelined as the military directed its focus, both in terms of personnel and resources, to battling the pandemic, and this included the planned purchase of the supersonic Brahmos missile.
Taking the brunt
As the disease bugged the military and its acquisition, concerns were raised that it could make the heaviest impact on the Navy, the unit in charge of securing the country’s maritime waters, including the West Philippine Sea, and the principal beneficiary of the modernization.
Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo has admitted that Covid-19 has affected the Navy and the impact may very well include its capability upgrade program.
“The second frigate, BRP Antonio Luna (FF151), was supposed to be delivered last September, but is now expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2021,” he said, referring to the other South Korean-built warship for the Navy.
The delivery of the first missile-capable Fast Attack Interdiction Craft (FAIC) ordered from Israel has also been moved due to the pandemic.
“The delivery of the first of eight Fast Attack Interdiction Craft-Missile (Shaldag), which should have been December this year, has been delayed mainly due to the stoppage of work in shipyards worldwide and the restrictions on travel in view of the pandemic,” Bacordo said.
The FAICs, four of which will be built in the country and the other four in Israel, are projected to replace the ageing gunboats of the Navy.
“The virus has indeed affected the operations of the Navy but we are learning to adapt as we go along,” Bacordo said.
“We are still able to achieve our operational targets, albeit in a modified manner, considering that we still need to adhere to Covid protocols even while performing our duties aboard ship, on aircraft or in offices in our naval bases,” he added.
The Navy chief said that among other precautions, they have been taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus, such as the conduct of regular health checkups and tests of personnel and disinfecting of their offices, ships, aircraft, cargo and deliveries.
Bacordo said they have also been requiring passengers of their various platforms and even visitors to their offices to show medical proof that they are not infected with the virus.
He said the Navy is also “limiting the time of stay of Navy ships in various ports of call outside naval bases and restricting the travel of crew ashore.” For Navy ships transporting civilian passengers, the ship’s crew are segregated from passengers until the point of “debarkation.”
In pursuit of mandate
With the military performing frontline roles for the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) against the Covid, the Navy has already transported more than 870 tons of personal protective equipment, medical supplies and food packs from sources, both local and abroad, and had helped to distribute them around the country using Navy vessels, aircraft and land vehicles.
Likewise, it has transported more than 800 locally stranded individuals from Manila to different major ports in the country, “and from regional ports to other regional ports.”
“The Philippine Navy is relentless in its efforts to support the government [effort to] contain the Covid-19 virus. Contingency plans were crafted in order to address the requirements of the IATF since the Covid-19 pandemic was announced in March 2020 and all throughout the various stages of community quarantine in the country,” Bacordo said.
Like any personnel at the forefront of the battle against the spread of the virus, at least 1,079 Navy personnel have contracted the disease. But of the number, 979 have already recovered while 98 are considered as active cases. Two personnel have also died.
“Our citizens can rest assured that their Navy is up to the challenge of confronting this pandemic head-on and that the Philippine Navy will continue to perform its mandate of securing our maritime borders in order to uphold the sovereignty of our nation,” Bacordo said.