[OPINION] Shutting the revolving door: Let the chiefs serve their tenure

A few weeks from now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will have its new Chief of Staff (CSAFP). General Felimon Santos Jr., the seventh military chief appointed by Rodrigo Duterte in his 4 years as president, will be retiring next month. Interestingly, the CSAFP’s average term under the Duterte administration is estimated to be only 7  months. This tenancy is way too low compared with the 10-month average of the 11 AFP chiefs in the 9 years that Gloria Arroyo occupied Malacañang, as well as the 11-month average under Benigno Aquino III’s time in office.

However, this tacitly accepted appointment of the military chief has long existed even before Duterte was elected. The 1987 Constitution did not define a fixed term for the CSAFP but only explicitly set the three-year maximum term. Intriguingly, the AFP’s revolving policy can be attributed to the constitutional provision forbidding laws on the retirement of military personnel to permit extension of their service. It is worth noting that AFP senior officers, once they are about to reach the pinnacle of their career, are already 54 to 55 years old on average. Thus, these competent military CSAFPs will be compelled to leave the service by compulsory retirement without even completing the maximum tenure of 3 years.

This particular provision, Article 16, Sec.5 of the 1987 Constitution, was actually the legal basis of former President Aquino in vetoing the bill that should have corrected this incongruous custom. The 15th Congress in 2011 attempted to address this revolving door policy of the military leadership; then-Congressman Rodolfo Biazon filed House Bill No. 6 – An Act Prescribing a Fixed Term for the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and For Other Purposes during the 15th Congress. This was reinforced by Senate Bill No. 2869 – Fixed Terms for the Chief of Staff and the Major Service Commanders of the AFP, which was principally authored by Senator Panfilo Lacson. These two bills that target to set the three-year term of the AFP Chief of Staff were approved by the respective houses and eventually reconciled during the bicameral conference.

Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recognized that the AFP chief’s position requires at least a three-year stint for the leadership to familiarize himself with his responsibilities to craft a strategic plan in the first year, while the remaining two years will logically be dedicated to implementing it. Undoubtedly, though the former CSAFPs were competent and professional who led the military in recent years on different fronts from terrorism to insurgency, and even as a reliable partner in this pandemic, it could still be argued that their short stint harms the military hierarchy and strategic development. Though others would contend that the blueprint for the AFP is already in place regardless of who is at the helm, it is still unimaginable that the incumbent CSAFP would not deviate or modify a particular strategy whether in the modernization plan or military operation.

The revolving door policy may also be a cause for the military to be politicized. Throughout its history, even if the military has always erred on the side of the Filipino people as proven by the two bloodless EDSA revolutions, the possibility of AFP senior officers being lured by the Commander-in-Chief’s guarantee for potential appointment as CSAFP even for a short time could not be ignored. His indebtedness to the Philippine president would unquestionably compromise his professional judgment since he could personally discern that his was an appointment favorably bestowed plainly because of political accommodation.

Further, since the retiring military chiefs undoubtedly deserve military honors upon retirement, which culminates in a change of command ceremony, it is also worth reflecting on not just the logistical costs of these ceremonies, but also on the inefficiencies imposed in terms of time and institutional energy on the part of the military units involved in preparing for one of the most celebrated events in the AFP. Another issue worth underlining is the pension of the increasing number of four-star generals retiring in the AFP, considering how retirement pay is already consuming a large portion of the military budget.

Policy recommendation

This time is the best opportunity for President Duterte to rectify this practice since he has the full support of the legislative branch. Considering that the bill Aquino vetoed is seemingly unconstitutional due to age extension, a revised bill addressing such concern can be refiled. Instead of deferring the statutory compulsory retirement, the new bill could require that the age of the CSAFP and major service commanders should have at least 3 years remaining in the service. Further, this should apply to all the chiefs heading the uniformed services, and not just in the military — in particular, the Chief, Philippine National Police, and the Commandant, Philippine Coast Guard.

Moreover, the three-year term should commence a day after the new members of the House of Representatives take their office or specifically on the first day of July. Through this setup, they will be protected from being politicized as they lead their respective services since they are assured of their tenure to continue their respective plans and programs. Furthermore, should the president lose confidence before the end of their respective terms, the replacement could only continue the remaining term. The assumption of a fixed three-year tenure for the chiefs of the uniformed services should be pegged after the midterm and presidential elections.

Without a doubt, the uniformed services in the Philippines certainly play critical roles in numerous capacities, and that the security challenges in the region is erratically volatile and continuously evolving. Appointing the service chiefs with a fixed three-year term is direly needed to ensure that their programs and policies could be implemented, as well as recalibrated should the need arise based on ample time that is afforded to the general officers by this policy. Regrettably, the current setting disallows them to strategize and evaluate their plans in a scenario akin to what is stated here. It is the lack of time to lead their services that arguably limits the professional judgment and optimal output of these fine officers and gentlemen to serve more than the Filipino people deserve. – Rappler.com

Jay Tristan Tarriela is a PhD candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu. All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of any particular institution.