Philippines mulls boosting war readiness through mandatory military training for students

Renewed talks on a bill that would reinstate a mandatory Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program in colleges and universities in the Philippines has ignited debate on whether it would be effective in boosting war readiness amid growing hostilities in the South China Sea. 

Senator Robin Padilla told local media on March 14 that he was getting “impatient” with the progress of passing the bill, which he filed two years ago but was now languishing in the Senate.

In August 2023, Padilla rebooted his call to pass the ROTC bill – which would require all full-time college students to undergo two years’ training with the Armed Forces of the Philippines – in response to China’s coast guard using water cannons on Philippine vessels and fishing boats.

Notably, the part-time training program would be conducted over four academic terms, coinciding with students’ studies. The Philippines already provides an ROTC program that college students may take as a prerequisite to graduation, but it is not mandatory.

“Is the Philippines ready to defend itself?” Padilla asked his fellow lawmakers when calling for the bill to be passed.

He compared the Philippines’ situation to the Russo-Ukrainian war, underscoring the need to increase the military’s rank and file if the Philippines was to have a fighting chance in any conflict against China.

“Given the size of China’s military and reservists, they could walk all over us, urinate on us, and we would drown,” he said.

A survey commissioned by the Philippines’ armed forces and conducted by research firm OCTA in December 2023 revealed that 77 percent of Filipinos said they were willing to fight for their country in the event of a conflict with a foreign enemy.

As per data from June last year, the Philippine military has 150,000 active-duty personnel and around 1.2 million reservists.

The Philippines has had a mandatory ROTC program in the past, but it was made voluntary via a law passed in 2002, after a student from the University of Santo Tomas was killed by senior ROTC officers for exposing corruption within the program at the university.

Senator Ronald dela Rosa reiterated Padilla’s sentiments when he spoke to reporters on March 13, saying that the Philippines needed to be prepared to defend itself at all times.

“We cannot have a credible defense if we do not have enough reserves. We cannot produce enough reserves if we do not have the ROTC program. We’re vulnerable without the ROTC program,” dela Rosa, a former national police chief, said.

The senator also pointed out that other regional countries such as Singapore required mandatory military service from its citizens, which kept their reserves strong.

Opposition senator Risa Hontiveros, however, said adopting a mandatory ROTC program was “not the right policy direction” and instead called for efforts to overhaul the country’s military.

“I think as the tension in the West Philippine Sea heats up, the most correct course of action for us as the Senate is to continue and judiciously increase support for military modernization, especially for the Philippine Navy, and adjust other aspects of national defense,” Hontiveros said on March 11, alluding to the part of the South China Sea that falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Furthermore, Hontiveros indicated that a smaller but more effective armed forces could be more strategic for the country’s national defense, particularly with the Senate’s passage of the Philippine Maritime Zones Act, a bill that defines the country’s maritime zones in line with The Hague’s arbitral ruling in 2016, which rebuffed Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China, which dismissed the arbitral ruling, has denounced the Philippines’ attempts to pass the act, saying Manila “has attempted to further enforce the illegal arbitral award on the South China Sea by domestic legislation”.

However, Joshua Espeña, vice-president of the International Development and Security Cooperation think tank, said that while a national defense force would work, an ROTC program that did not add any real value in terms of understanding and training for modern warfare would be unlikely to have any real strategic consequences against a large enemy force with sophisticated machinery.

Besides, Espeña pointed out practical concerns, saying that making ROTC mandatory might end up becoming costly to implement, forcing competition for limited resources in the yearly budget set by lawmakers.

In last year’s Senate hearings, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense projected that enforcing the ROTC program alone would cost 61.2 billion pesos (US$1.09 billion), most of which would be allocated to the estimated 9,000 military personnel needed to run the program in over 2,000 colleges and universities.

“We must include concerns such as pensions, benefits, and other relevant perks in joining the reserve force,” Espeña said.

Based on Espeña’s argument, much of the country’s defense budget was already channeled toward personnel expenses, while capital outlay, maintenance and other operating expenses, such as those incurred to procure new warfare systems and equipment, lagged behind.

“Much of the budget is understandably concerned with incomes, pensions, and dependency concerns for the regular forces aside from expenditures on training and education,” he said.

“The current reserve force does not receive monthly income, assuming they have day jobs, but the money allocated is for training and education. We must gear our reserves to operate and prevail in modern warfare to optimize the defense budget.”

Hence, the Philippines needs to look beyond simply adding more numbers to its forces if it wants to strengthen its defense strategy, Espeña contended. 

“My view is that defense policy should focus on securing a robust force structure of … regular and reserve forces first rather than just building a mass against enemies using untrained, unprofessional conscripts in times of war. We do not have enough population to rebuild a post-war order if we do not use human capital well,” he said.

Despite being its biggest supporter, Padilla is not waiting for the passage of his ROTC bill to recruit more of his countrymen. On March 11, he launched a voluntary Basic Citizen Military Training program for Senate employees, which has already seen 161 people sign up.

Photo credit: iStock/ Serhej Calka

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