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Step up our defense modernization program

THE American, Philippine, and Malaysian navies begin today a training exercise in the Sulu Sea as part of the US Pacific Fleet’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) program. The program was begun in 1995 to promote cooperation and interoperability between US forces and other participating nations, with the goal of bolstering security and stability in the region. Participating ships and aircraft from the three nations will conduct communication drills, maritime security coordination, and maritime domain awareness training.

This week’s exercise in the Sulu Sea is the latest program in which Philippine defense forces have been coordinating with the defense forces of other nations in this increasingly sensitive part of the world. Very recently, in the Sulu Sea, pirates identified with the Abu Sayyaf boarded ships and took several Indonesians as hostage. Soon afterwards, Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu called for more joint patrols with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei in the waters linking the four countries where, he said, piracy has become rampant.

North of the Sulu Sea is the South China Sea, where maritime unrest of another kind has come up, with several nations disputing ownership of various islands in the Spratlys and the Paracels, and China claiming virtually the entire South China Sea. Further north, in the East China Sea, Japan has its own dispute with China over certain islands.

The Philippines is right in the center of this area of increasing unrest. And a great deal of concern has been voiced about our readiness to meet any unexpected development in this part of the world, particularly in the seas around us.

During the Philippine Navy anniversary celebration last Wednesday, President Aquino said we have vastly improved the Navy’s resources and capability to defend our territorial waters with the acquisition of new ships and anti-submarine helicopters. The latest of these vessels is the BRP Tarlac, our first sea-lift vessel capable of transporting hundreds of troops and supplies, along with three landing craft. Another sealift vessel is due to be delivered next year.

President Aquino said the government has released P60 billion for Armed Forces modernization, more than double the combined funds released under the three previous administrations. With this fund, the government also acquired five naval helicopters and three multi-purpose attack craft. Forthcoming are two frigates, two anti-submarine helicopters, and the country’s third weather high-endurance cutter.

We are still some way from having truly modern armed forces but these latest additions to the Philippine Navy are reassuring. As we work closely with allies like the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other fellow ASEAN members, we must continue to step up our defense modernization program, with special emphasis on naval and air forces to keep watch over our land and our seas.