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The outbreak of the Muslim secessionist movements in Mindanao forced the government to increase its armed forces. The armed forces whose troop size in 1967 was 45,000 had strength of 164,000 soldiers by 1997. The AFP had saturated the areas with troops and militias where communists were active. But even at their increased strength the armed forces are not large as a percentage of the population or in relation to the terrain they have to cover, and the defense budget was a modest one by Western standards.

The combined strength of the four armed services at the end of 1990 was approximately 153,500. The army had some 68,000 troops, the constabulary 45,000, the air force 15,500, and the navy 25,000, including about 8,000 in the marines and 2,000 in the coast guard.

After rapid growth during the 1970s, when armed forces strength trebled, total military strength remained relatively stable in the 1980s. There were 155,000 personnel in the Philippine military in 1980. Because the Philippines had a relatively youthful population, maintaining the strength of the armed forces was not a drain on human resources. More than 8 million men were of military age, between eighteen and thirty-two. Military strength per capita was only 2.3 per 1,000 population, lower than nearly all the country's Asian neighbors.

Although universal service was mandatory, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was a de facto volunteer force. The 1980 National Service Law provided the legal basis for conscription and required all citizens — male and female — to perform service in the military, civic welfare, or law enforcement agencies. However, the law was never fully implemented. Conscription was not necessary during the 1980s because volunteers greatly outnumbered available slots. Despite the inherent danger of military service during the fight against the communist insurgency, limited employment opportunities for unskilled young adults ensured an abundant supply of volunteers. The armed forces had no recruiting apparatus; units instead recruited locally to fill vacancies. Potential recruits had to be eighteen years old, unmarried, and possess a high school diploma.

Officers were commissioned from three major sources. Regular officers were commissioned from the prestigious Philippine Military Academy, which produced 15 percent of all officers. Some 65 percent were graduates of Citizen Military Training, formerly the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Most received reserve commissions, whereas some, called "integrees," were integrated into the regular officer corps. Enlisted personnel who completed Officer Candidate School accounted for some 18 percent of all officers. The other 2 percent of officers received direct commissions as medical or legal professionals or graduated from foreign military academies. Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) did not constitute the professional corps found in most Western armies and were only marginally involved in leadership and decision making. Ethnic and linguistic differences were important in the military.

Local recruiting ensured that personnel were drawn from all sections of the country, but certain regions were disproportionately represented. The majority of military personnel spoke Tagalog and were from the heartland of central and southern Luzon. Despite continuing efforts to increase the number of Muslims in the military, Moros from the southern Philippines were underrepresented. Traditionally, Ilocanos from northern Luzon comprised a disproportionate share of officer and enlisted ranks. This emphasis was especially true under Marcos, who tended to promote fellow Ilocanos to positions of power in the armed forces and police. Because of this tendency—shared by previous presidents—the 1987 constitution directs that the "armed forces shall be recruited proportionately from all provinces and cities as far as practicable."

The Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) administers veterans’ benefits, implements programs and projects to enhance their general welfare, and institutes measures to memorialize their patriotism and heroism. It oversees the operations and maintenance of the Veterans Memorial Medical Center and accredited hospitals nationwide to service the medical needs of veterans. It also oversees the administration and development of military shrines. Although language and dialect compelled people from the same region to associate with one another, these groups were not so exclusive that they formed significant factions. A variety of internal divisions plagued the officer corps in the late 1980s. The most significant rifts essentially were political — between those who supported the government and those who advocated its overthrow. The military-sparked popular revolt against Marcos and the subsequent series of uprisings against Aquino brought military leaders into direct, sometimes bloody, conflict.

A variety of military factions and fraternal groups, including RAM, Young Officers' Union, and Marcos loyalists, emerged as important antigovernment players. In an effort to contain the influence of these groups, the government ordered military fraternal organizations disbanded in 1987. However, through clandestine contacts, RAM, the Young Officers' Union, and Marcos loyalists orchestrated the 1989 coup attempt with the support of three generals. Their activities continued to undermine the authority of the military chain of command.

Following the 1989 coup attempt, the president's military adviser, a retired army commander, attributed the involvement of so many junior leaders to a "generational gap" in the armed forces between mostly loyal senior officers and the more rebellious junior ranks. He credited younger officers' better education for the tendency of some, like those in the Young Officers' Union, to become more involved in politics and to question the directives of their superiors.

The 1987 Philippine constitution permanently barred retirement extensions, military service in civilian positions, and the involvement of military personnel in politics. A widespread program of reeducation and retraining was initiated to instill professional values at all levels. In an effort to reduce the armed forces' involvement in government, officers assigned to positions outside the armed forces were recalled.

Frictions created by perceived inequity in the military's personnel system also dogged the officer corps. Although the divisive Marcosera practice of extending generals beyond their scheduled retirement was discontinued in 1986, other controversial practices continued under Aquino. Officers with reserve commissions — the majority of the officer corps — complained that the personnel system favored regular officers, especially Philippine Military Academy (PMA) graduates. Although past regimes, such as the Marcos regime, had advanced ROTC graduates, nearly all top generals under Aquino were academy alumni. Bonds between PMA graduates, especially classmates, tended to perpetuate this favoritism. In 1986 reservists formed an organization similar to the PMA alumni association to promote their interests.

The presidentially appointed Davide Commission investigating the causes of the 1989 coup attempt identified another source of discontent — the role of personal ties in promotions and assignments. Observers noted that the patron-client ties and personal loyalties that were typical of Philippine society were perhaps the biggest factor in the career prospects for officers.

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