Who wants mandatory ROTC? | Inquirer Opinion
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Who wants mandatory ROTC?

The question still concerns national security, as it did in 1935. Preparing for independence but fearful of war with Japan, the Commonwealth government passed its first law, the National Defense Act that required college students to enroll in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Though triggered by the exposure of corruption and crime in the implementation of ROTC, the passage of the National Service Training Program in 2001, making ROTC optional, also followed from the military assessment of the country’s radically altered security environment.

Hence, the perspectives of the Department of National Defense (DND)-Armed Forces of the Philippines on the legislative bills, numbering over 25 last December, to restore Commonwealth-style mandatory ROTC (MROTC) should carry the heaviest weight. Current demand for evidence-based legislation raises public expectations that their authors had addressed the concerns of the institution with the broadest expertise on the issue and the burden for its implementation.

DND-AFP has judiciously avoided public comment on the subject. It would be imprudent for DND-AFP officers, constitutionally subordinate to civilian authorities, to oppose openly policies proposed by powerful politicians. Their views surface in their professional analysis of security threats.


Coincidentally, also last December, DND-AFP declared that it had achieved strategic victory over the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army. Insurgency remains a concern, though less than in the 50s to the 80s. Internal political problems have led to communal violence in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) that may require DND-AFP intervention, but, notwithstanding the jihadist occupation of Marawi, the establishment of BARMM has moderated the terrorist threat.


Meanwhile, maritime competition in the South China Sea, the Ukraine war, and United States-People’s Republic of China (PRC) confrontation over Taiwan reflect a volatile global geopolitical environment that calls for a review of DND-AFP mission and mandate and the resulting changes in policies, which it may demand. President Fidel Ramos started this reassessment in 1995, following two milestone events: the closure of American bases in the Philippines and the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in the West Philippine Sea, claimed and earlier controlled by the Philippines as part of its United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recognized exclusive economic zone.

The result was the AFP Modernization Act (AFPMA), which laid out a 15-year plan to improve the country’s capacity for self-defense. In 2012, the confrontation with the PRC in the Scarborough Shoal prompted the extension of the AFPMA to 2027 with a $40 billion budget to support the DND-AFP pivot from internal security to external defense operations.

DND-AFP strategic considerations also emerge during high-level discussions of institutional priorities. Particularly in deliberations about where scarce financial and personnel resources should be deployed. “Follow the money” is still a useful guide to indicate institutional assumptions and whether or not these have changed as they should. The Ateneo School of Government research on the national security budget showed DND-AFP’s deep awareness of the substantive, systemic problems it faces.

AFPMA has helped DND-AFP place among the five highest budget recipients. In 2022, its allocation amounted to P706 billion, about 15.7 percent of the total. Still, its released budget over the last two decades falls short of the resources required by its evolving mission, whose costs are also rising. External shocks, like the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and the pandemic in 2019, can cut into the budget for national security. The Philippines spends around 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense, second to the lowest among the Asean countries.

The DND-AFP spends about 55 percent of its budget for personnel services (PS); the bulk goes to support the army, which commands about 70 percent of the AFP. An increasing portion of the PS budget, now at over 28 percent, must support pension benefits for retirees. Government authorities have already sounded the alert on the unsustainable costs of unfunded and possibly unconstitutional DND-AFP pension benefits.

With the funds allocated for PS and maintenance and other operating expenses, only 21 percent remains for capital investments in technology and weapons systems urgently needed to deter external threats. The budget size and structure help explain why the DND-AFP is not rushing to support MROTC, which will compete for a share of the national budget. While responsible for managing MROTC, these funds will add little to advance AFPMA priorities for territorial defense. It will further bloat the PS bill that it wants to trim to cover the costs of another bureaucracy, calling for expertise it cannot credibly claim to possess.


Rightsizing the DND-AFP does not mean mandatory ROTC.


Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.


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TAGS: military training, ROTC, students, Universities

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