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How Powerful was the Philippine Military Under Marcos?

A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.

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Whenever you come across a hardcore loyalist, he or she would often boast that the late Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos once made the Philippines great. Back then, it was the most powerful country in Asia, an undisputable nation that no one can beat. And such nation also wielded some of the best armed forces during that time, ahead of most of its Asian neighbors. Loyalists even claim that the Philippines was second only to Japan, or even Japan’s equal.

Loyalists and fanatics love to paint the Marcos-era Philippines as a long-lost utopia. A golden age that fell due to dirty politics, with Marcos and the Philippines as the victims. But doing a bit of research basically debunks the notion. As a saying goes, there are lots of jokers out there telling whole lies, and zero truths. And the notion that the Philippines was once an Asian superpower is wishful thinking. In fact, it was a troubled country back then, but digging into the myths of Marcos-era prosperity is another topic. Nevertheless, a quick review of the Marcos-era armed forces might open the eyes of people. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad back then, but it was not the best either. And like many of the loyalists’ stories, the supposedly formidable armed forces were an exaggeration.

The Claim

An F-5 fighter jet.

An F-5 fighter jet.

Again, the overwhelming strength of the Marcos-era military is one of the staples of loyalists. Propaganda pages in social media, and video sharing sites like YouTube often championed such idea. Countless memes about the said topic flood the corners of the net, and recently, loyalists are even using Tiktok to convey such messages to the public. And a quick search in Google will reveal various Marcos related webpages promoting the supposedly strong military of the past. I tried to take a peek in one of their pages, and for the sake of not promoting such unverified story, I won’t show the name of the source, nor the link. It says that the Philippines was well equipped. The navy was armed with high endurance cutters, corvettes, minesweepers, even submarine chasers in addition to other support ships.

In the air, the Philippines had an assortment of fighters and helicopters, like the Vought F-8 Crusader, and 37 units Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, while the army boasted a so-called secret missile program.

Now, I checked the sources of their information, and they got them from sites like Wikipedia, from a defunct online forum and Globalfirepower.net. From here, we could see the problem. Wikipedia could be edited by anyone, Globalfirepower.net is not claimed to be accurate, while anyone could just post unverified contents in forum pages.

Further Checking

Marcos' defunct missile program.

Marcos' defunct missile program.

The citations should already cause doubts to the keen readers. But good thing that the internet has more reliable sources to offer. Hence after doing a bit of research, we came across this guy named Andrew Tan. He specializes in terrorism, defense studies, and other matters relating to Asian militaries. And in 2004 in his paper for the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies Singapore, he mentioned how the military of the Philippines back in the Martial Law era wasn’t the mythological superpower the loyalists sold to the public. He cites "The Military Balance 1974-75" for a snapshot of military capabilities of Southeast Asian states in 1974 that shows the Philippines trailing Thailand in personnel, 274,000 to 396,000.

What’s more, in terms of combat aircraft, the Philippine military back then was behind Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore. In fact, the Philippines only had 36 aircraft units in 1974, compared to Thailand’s 105 aircrafts, 85 to Laos, 65 to Singapore and 64 to Cambodia. Hence, the Philippines back then could be described as weak, with small number of major weapons systems, and was never in par with Asian giants like Japan.

And how about the so called “missile program?”

Loyalist often blamed the cancellation of the program to the fall of the Marcos regime. But it was scrapped long before the Edsa Revolution, by non-other than the Marcos government. The reason behind was still undisclosed.

To be fair, Marcos did invest on the military back in his days, yet he never transformed it into an imposing fighting force. Furthermore, there are more truths to uncover.

How Marcos Managed the Military

gen. Fabian Ver, an infamous military leader of Marcos.

gen. Fabian Ver, an infamous military leader of Marcos.

Marcos institutionalized the military as the center of the power in the Philippine society. He did made investment to make it more powerful, and the military strength of the Philippines in terms of personnel greatly increased. From 60000 in 1972, it jumped to 250000 troops by the end of 1975, with a budget of P4 billion in 1976 from just P880 million in 1972.

But the increased budget and manpower in the military have a price. The armed forces must stay loyal to Marcos. With that he had a lot of influence in the military, and one could say that the increased budget enabled Marcos to control the armed forces. With such influences, Marcos had the final say on who will be promoted, and he basically filled the military leadership with officers from Ilocos, his home town. Controlling the intelligence network was Gen. Fabian Ver, a closed relative. The Presidential Guard was headed by another Ver, Irwin. And rather than being used as national defense, Marcos basically turned the military into his own private army.

Marcos relied on hamletting, the same method used by the US during the Vietnam War to combat the rise of communist insurgency. He will send the army to pacify remote areas and reduce the influence of rebels in rural population. The problem here was that it became the military’s instrument of abuse, whereas summary killings, rapes and tortures became rampant.

Critics often says that Marcos’ investments in the military was never meant for national security, but to increase his power and influence.

Marcos Relied on the U.S.

U.S. Naval base in Subic Bay.

U.S. Naval base in Subic Bay.

And for a nation that loyalist claimed to be a lost superpower, it’s amazing how it relied on U.S. for protection. Marcos’ greatest weapon against external threats wasn’t his armed forces, but the presence of U.S. in Subic and Clark. Sure, many nations won’t dare touch the Philippines, but not because of its military strength. It got the backing of the U.S. and even received aids as well. This came in the form of large sums of military budget, as well as equipment like armored vehicles, helicopters, planes and assault rifles. In return, the Marcos government must vow to fight communism, considered a major threat back in the days of the Cold War.

Hence, it’s safe to say that while Marcos and his military under Fabian Ver flexes their muscles over the hapless population, the U.S. did all the external defense.

Unfortunately, even with increase of military assistance, communist insurgency persisted, if not worsened. The rampant abuses of the Marcos-era military among the civilian population basically escalated the problem and instead contributed to the rise of communist insurgencies. With the corruption of AFP under the Marcos-Ver leadership, the U.S. felt that its aid came to waste. There are even reports that the million-dollar military aids were used to buy luxury helicopters instead.

Overall

In the end, the Marcos-era AFP wasn’t the most powerful in Asia. In fact, in terms of equipment, it was one of the weakest, while Philippines back then relied on U.S. for protection against external threats.

Now, if only the political fanatics and loyalists will grow up and stop spreading lies.

References

1. De Santos, Jonathan (n.d.). "Was the Philippines a regional military power under Marcos?" Philippine Star.

2. FALSE: Military under Marcos was most advanced in Asia. (2020 November 17). Retrieved from FALSE: Military under Marcos was most advanced in Asia (rappler.com)


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