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Transforming the Army

/ 09:31 PM September 09, 2011

The Philippine Army has a new face—and a new body to match. Either that or it had me completely fooled for two days, and pulled the wool over the eyes of the likes of Jess Estanislao, Alex Lacson and Samilra Tomawis as well. The four of us are part of the nine-member Philippine Army Multi-Sector Advisory Board (MSAB).

The MSAB is part of the Army’s face-lifting, body-building process. It had its inaugural session only six weeks ago. But its initial working session was held at Fort Magsaysay yesterday (Friday), and that’s where I got almost literally bowled over.

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The camp was the first eye-opener.  Time was when it went by the nickname “Fort Magsisi” (given by the soldiers themselves) because if you were assigned there, magsisisi ka (you will regret it). Well, I saw the 46,000-hectare (it used to be 70,000 but got “encroached”) Fort Magsaysay for the first time on Thursday, and it had tiled roofs, paved roads, landscaped gardens, and top-grade facilities for the officers and enlisted men of the Special Operations Command and the Seventh Infantry Division.

I wasn’t the only one impressed. US officers who went there recently for the Balikatan training exercises apparently couldn’t believe that they were in the same camp that they had been in for previous exercises. Apparently Commanding General Arturo Ortiz, who has the reputation of  improving the surrounding infrastructure wherever he is assigned, was the one who started the ball rolling at Fort Magsaysay. It certainly beats Camps Aguinaldo and Crame.

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After our meeting on Thursday, the MSAB was treated to “Capability Demonstrations”—and that was another eye-opener. Do you know that the Army has snipers of so high a caliber that they can pick off targets up to 1.2 kilometers away? I saw them do it.

And they had their version of William Tell. Remember the story of the marksman who was forced to prove his prowess by shooting at an apple perched on his own son’s head? Well, in this modern version, one sniper stood with two balloons on either side of him filled with red-colored water, while his sniper buddy, from 25 meters away, shot at the balloons and burst them. I kid you not. Then the buddies changed places, so that the buddy holding the target balloons was now the shooter. How about that for a confidence-building exercise?

There were other capability demonstrations which unfortunately I cannot write about for security reasons. But I can assure you that they boosted my confidence in the Philippine Army and its capabilities. The image of a fumbling, bumbling, inept organization is definitely gone.

But the best is yet to come. The main purpose of our visit to Fort Magsaysay and our MSAB “introductory working session” was for us to be brought up to speed and get our feedback on  the “Army Transformation Roadmap” (ATR).  The ATR is an ambitious, 18-year strategic plan whose ultimate objective is to convert the Philippine Army  into “A World-Class Army That Is A Source of National Pride by 2028.”

The ATR was compared to scaling a high, Everest-like mountain, by 2028, with base camps (intermediate targets) to be reached along the way. And it wasn’t just big words:  there were indicators galore that would allow an objective assessment of whether the roadmap was indeed being followed, with scorecards for all levels, from the top (the commanding general) to the bottom (the company commander).

Truth to tell, probing questions were asked by the MSAB. There seemed to be a sense of cynicism  about whether this plan was “owned” by the Army at all levels (which is a necessary condition for its success), or whether it was the brainchild of someone at the top (which would then be discarded when he retired).

It turned out—and this is where we saw the first sign of a real transformation—that the ATR was the product of a week-long brainstorming session participated in by 49 officers, enlisted personnel and civilian employees (talk about participatory decision-making), assisted by 12 staff and facilitators. The sessions, which sometimes lasted until the wee hours of the morning, were described as stormy, passionate, but always with views that came from sincere and committed hearts.

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The most senior and most junior officers present during the brainstorming (in Tagaytay) were also present:  Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, a principal figure in both the AFP’s Bayanihan (“winning the peace”) paradigm shift and the ATR, and 2nd Lt. Mario Feliciano, an Iranian-Filipino who started his military studies at the Philippine Military Academy and then finished at West Point.

The witness given by Feliciano was most powerful: The scandals wracking the Army (Garcia, Ligot) so disillusioned the fresh graduate that he thought seriously of resigning. Then he was asked to participate in the brainstorming, and what he saw and experienced there—the sincerity, the commitment, and the rank-free openness of the discussions—made him change his mind. He is solidly behind the ATR and will stake his life on it. The young lieutenant’s testimony, interrupted by his attempts to hold back his tears, brought most of his listeners to tears.

MSAB Chair Jess Estanislao asked all the other officers present to speak their minds, and it was clear to everyone in the room that the ATR was wholly “owned.”

Which bodes very well for the Army, and for the Philippines.

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