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Philippine Air Force (PAF)


Brig. Gen. Ramon Farolan, the first "post-EDSA" PAF chief, sought to capture the spirit of the times by urging Air Force officers and men to "go back to the basics" and "repay a thousand-fold the (people's) trust and confidence in the military." He was alluding to the two principal challenges of his transitional leadership: to restore unity among the officers and personnel of the PAF which the dictatorship and the resulting politicization of the military shattered; and to regain the civilian populace's trust in the military which 20 years of martial rule had eroded.

Many top-ranking officers with over-extended terms were finally retired, clearing the way for the promotion of deserving younger officers.

During his term as commander, Brig. Gen. Sotelo sought to restore the PAF's high professional standards by instituting the "no flight, no pay" policy for all rated officers, reviving the merit system as the basis for promotion, and laying the groundwork for the remodernization of the Air Force.

This paved the way for the formulation of a five-year PAF development plan, the decentralization of resource management and the acquisition of the S-211 aircraft, MG 520 Defender helicopters, and aero/ground support equipment under the watch of Maj. Gen. Jose de Leon.

Politicization of the AFP, however, had not been completely undone.

From 1986 to 1990, rightist military factions, wary that the government of President Corazon Aquino had become "too soft" on communists, attempted a series of coups d'etat. Without adequate civilian and military backing, however, the putschists failed to topple the newly restored democracy.

But the attempted coups exacted a heavy toll on the PAF and the rest of the Armed Forces.

Not only did the Air Force have to work hard to restore unity within the command, it also had to deal with the extensive damage sustained by its air and ground assets. During the crucial air strike led by Maj. Danilo Atienza against rebel forces in Sangley Field on 2 December 1989, for instance, seven T-28s, one Sikorsky helicopter and a fuel depot were destroyed.

A few months before that bloody coup attempt in 1989, the Air Force made a move whose significance may not have been widely or readily appreciated.

Air Force Day was celebrated on the 1st of July that year instead of on the 2nd of May as had been the practice since 1937. The change was made by order of President Aquino through Proclamation No. 397.

The change served an important symbolic purpose. Centuries of colonial experience are often said to have spawned self-denigrating, xenophilic Filipinos, for whom almost everything foreign is deemed superior to almost all that is Philippine or Filipino. It is equally true, however, that the thought of centuries of colonial abuse has stoked nationalistic fervor in as many, if not more, Filipinos over the years. The same phenomenon has evidently been the case within the Air Force, as with many Filipino organizations. The committees that recommended the change cited "growing nationalist sentiment (within the PAF)" that the Air Force should disengage itself from its "colonial moorings." Celebrating the test flight of an American pilot seemed hardly the way to do that.

In yet another stroke of irony, however, two US Phantom jets streaked across the Makati afternoon sky on 2 December 1989 as negotiations to end the bloody coup ensued below. This demonstration of US support to the Aquino government - which really had no tactical significance after Major Atienza and two other F-5 pilots disabled the rebels' air assets at Sangley earlier that day - was a none-too-subtle reminder of the many nuances of freedom. Again, quite a number of Filipinos saw the Americans as "saviors" - overlooking the feats of real heroes like Maj. Atienza (who was killed in action and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor) who turned the tide against the rebels.

Like poetic justice, however, the final irony in the history of the Philippine Air Force would put things aright barely two years later. On 16 September 1991 the nation finally cut the umbilical cord of military dependence on the United States as the Philippine Senate repudiated the RP-US Military Bases Agreement. The bold move, long overdue, forced the AFP to look seriously at building a credible capability to defend a nation on its own.

By abandoning what for decades had seemed its main source of strength, the PAF and the rest of the Armed Forces finally unlocked the key to their renewal. Meanwhile, a sustained government policy of rapproachment with erstwhile insurgents freed the military to focus on its primordial mission of external defense.

To Lt. Gen. Loven Abadia, the PAF chief at the time of the withdrawal of US military forces from the Philippines, this meant a quick shift from the focus on de-politicization and support of democracy to a firm conviction to modernize the Air Force in the face of great odds. Abadia would later find out that PAF modernization was not easy to sell to a public suspicious of large budgetary appropriations for the military - no thanks to the residual effects of the martial law era.

It was up to subsequent senior military officers to convince the people's representatives in Congress that without a modernized AFP (and, with it, a more credible Air Force), the country's security would always remain fragile, particularly in a world order driven by economic competitiveness among nations

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