Monday, July 4, 2011

Developments within the Military, Second Quarter of 2011, Part I: Balikatan 2011, Shuffle in the 6ID, and Another High Ranking Officer Takes a Hit

Balikatan, or "Shoulder to Shoulder," is the annual joint American and Philippine military exercise that is supposed to increase inter-operability between the allied militaries of both these nations but instead merely serves as a flexing of muscles to remind anyone paying attention that while the AFP, or Armed Forces of the Philippines, might be a joke in terms of accumen, equipment and even elan, it still is not to be trifled with. The exercise was designed as a way in which to foster closer ties after the rank nationalism of the immediate post-Marcos Era got out of hand and ended up shuttering all US installations in the country by the end of 1991. Why do I say "out of hand?" How many spoiled university students or whining Party List Congressmen did we see whining about the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) when China threatened to knock the Philippines' collective teeth out over the Spratlys this quarter? The cans of paint, childish placards, and broxen down soap boxes stayed put as the Philippines gave a heaving sigh of relief over Tato Sammy's bulging biceps. Indeed, the base closings were used as the main rationale for the implementation of Balikatan which began that same year, 1991. Obstensibly the selling point was the "fufillment" of bilateral obligations relating to the MDT, or Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in the early 1950s.

This year's exercise was to be the biggest ever, a massive undertaking with a Combat War Game employing nearly 14,000 personnel combined but had a huge wrench thrown into it when Japan suffered the brunt of a tsunami that nearly sent a nuclear reactor into melt down. The US has a huge ideological investment in Japan, Okinawa is vital to PACOM (US Pacific Command), and so the Pentagon quickly shifted the bulk of assets earmarked for the 27th Balikatan and instead considered scrubbing the entire endeavour. In the end the US decided to engage in an abbreviated exercise rather than allow the Philippine Opposition to build momentum in its perrenial effort to trash the VFA, as well as other forms of bilateral co-operation.

The exercise began on April 5th, 2011 but in reality it is an ongoing thing that always involves US personnel stationed in the Philippines. The Balikatan 2010 exercise ended on March 19th, 2010. At that point personnel remained, with additional manpower arriving as needed for the joint analysis as well as the massive amount of logistics that takes place both before and after. By the end of the summer the job is about done, just in time for September when the Advance Team for the next year's exercise arrives. They are tasked with pinpointing geographical locations for various exercises and initiatives, the usual Hearts and Minds Civic Operations, VETCAPS, MADCAPS, and Engineering. Then, three months before commencement logistics personnel return to handle contracting. For Balikatan 2011 more than 500 contracts were issued in just 60 days. Everything from housing to soft drinks is contracted out, a boon to the local economy but madness to administer.

As for the actual exercise this year, the theme was Post-Conflict Recovery and Reconstruction. Among more notable aspects, the Americans' 45th Sustainment Brigade, based in Hawaii deployed its 303rd EOD (Explosives and Ordnance Detachment) 706th Company to liason and train with AFP EODs. Beginning April 8th at Fort Magsaysay in Tarlac, opened the module by briefing their AFP counterparts with war porn (stories from the field) from Afghanistan and Iraq with an emphasis on VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, an IED being a bomb, a VBIED basically being a car or truck bomb). The next day, April 9th the Americans rigged a truck with an IED, detonated it and then had the AFP EOD go in for an immediate retrieval and then a post-blast analysis.

On April 10th they shifted gears with the Americans introducing their AFP counterparts to Talen Robotic Retrieval. A Talen is a tracked robot ( "tracked" as in it not having wheels but instead rubberised treads like a bulldozer or tank). The Talen has a claw, a storage compartment and cameras. The claw is used via remote operation to grab an IED, place it in the storage box and then transported to a safer location. The AFP rigged 3 houses with penalty devices, electronic sensors that emit a tone if mishandled so as to simulate an inadvertant detonation. The final exercise had personel suiting up to personally enter a building and retrieve a penalty device.

The US contingent was led by Lieutenant General Francis J.Wiercinski, counterpart to the AFP's Rear Admiral Emmanuel Victor Martir, and together the two oversaw the construction of 10 classrooms in 5 buildings in Zambales and Tarlac Provinces on Luzon before Balikatan 2011 ended on April 15th.

6ID (Infantry Division) CO (Commanding Officer) Major General Anthony Alcantara was promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff of the AFP effective May 3rd, 2011. He is replacing Major General Emmanuel Bautista who merely kept the seat warm as OIC (Officer in Charge, as in Temporarily Assigned) but who now takes a bump down to lead the 3ID, with that kind of/sort of demotion being retroactively effected as of May 4th. Maj.Gen.Alcantara is a member of PMA 79 (Philippine Military Academy, Class of 1979) and assumed command on November 27th, 2009. The 6ID, aside from being one of four IDs on Mindanao happens to be the outfit with Operational Control over Maguindanao Province, ergo his assumption of Command came just after the Maguindanao Massacre, at the event's ground zero.

Replacing Alcantara is Brigadier General Rey Cabahug Ardo, heretofore the CO of the 103rd Brigade, the 1ID's heaviest hitting brigade, based in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur Province. Concurrently Ardo Chaired the GPH (Government of the Philippines) CCCH (Co-ordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities), the entity that together with its MILF counterpart does its best to try and preserve the GPH-MILF Ceasefire. Replacing Ardo on the CCCH is Brigadier General Ariel Bernardo who assumes that position after serving as Alcantara's EXO, or Executive Officer, the number two position in the 6ID.

Alcantara had been CO of TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) though he has a resume studded with Field Commands in Central Luzon as well as the PEB (Presidential Escorts Battalion), a key Command of the PSG (Presidential Security Group) and so, when then President Arroyo needed an absolutely trustworthy officer to mop up all that blood and residual stink left by the Ampatuan Clan, she turned to Alcantara . Unfortunately for Alcantara this career-making deployment came at the tail end of the Arroyo Presidency and so his days were numbered. All things considered, though it took one extra rotation, he still ended up with a nice promotion.

AFP Deputy Chairman of Logistics, J4, Commodore Teddy Pan, scheduled to retire on July 17th, 2011 took a dive on April 4th, 2011 when he was summarily relieved of Command in the face of a widening probe that grew out of the corruption nightmare that itself evolved out of the plea bargain brouhaha of former Major General Carlos F.Garcia, an ex-Comptroller. In Commodore Pan's private hell, it seems he reported a lubricant consumption of P400 Million for the first quarter of 2011. Actually, it was only for January 1st through March 15th which makes it two weeks short of the entire quarter which makes it even more appalling. The usual number hovers around P150 Million.

Commodore Pan probably won't be forced to fall on his own sword though, he has retained the full support of the powers that be and will probably have the issue fade into obscurity this summer, shortly after his 56th birthday and mandatory retirement. Meanwhile, he has had to deal with the aggravation of a three man investigatory team composed of the AFP JAG (Judge Advocate General), Brigadier General Gilberto Roa, AFP Internal Auditor, Major General Rolito Abad and AFP Provost Marshal General, Colonel Herbert Yambing who were empanelled by Chief of Staff Oban. General Oban, who assumed Command on March 8th, 2011 had the case dumped in his lap by predecessor Chief of Staff Ricardo David Jr.

Interestingly, Director Eduardo Batac, Spokesperson of the Department of National Defense says there was no such discrepancy. Batac maintains that in fact the first quarter allocation was merely P108 Million. Of that, only P80 Million was distributed leaving a deficit of P28 Million in Commodore Pan's favour.

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