The Reagan administration is expediting the shipment of $35 million worth of basic military supplies for the ill-equipped Philippine army to help it confront the intensifying communist-led insurgency, according to a top State Department official.
The decision to rush the supplies to Manila and to focus on "the basic needs" of the Philippine army is one result of an interagency review of U.S. policy toward the Philippines under way since the Aug. 28 attempted military coup there.
The coup's near-success has badly shaken U.S. policymakers and led to an administration search for new ways to bolster President Corazon Aquino's government.
Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur, testifying Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, indicated that one focus of the review has been on "the adequacy and appropriateness" of current U.S. aid programs to the Philippines, especially military assistance.
"We are focusing increasingly on the basic needs of combat troops, including personal equipment and medical supplies," he said.
Ammunition, machine guns, radios, trucks, Jeeps, portable fuel containers, engineering equipment and ambulances are among supplies being rushed to Manila, Sigur said.
But Sigur said the needs of the Philippine army "far outstrip" the assistance the United States is providing, and that the administration is considering a request to Congress for additional military aid. The administration provided $100 million in security assistance last year and has asked $110 million for this fiscal year, Sigur said.
Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), subcommittee chairman, and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican, called at the hearing for a bigger aid program and a multinational "Marshall Plan for Manila" to bolster Aquino.
The two senators voiced strong support for the Aquino government and warned Col. Gregorio Honasan, who led the Aug. 28 coup attempt and is believed to be planning another one, that Congress will cut off all aid if he succeeds.
While confirming strong U.S. backing for Aquino, Sigur expressed concern about the attempted coup's negative impact on her government. He said the Philippine army's ability to combat the communist insurgency had been undermined, and said the Communist Party "clearly was the major beneficiary" of the attempt.
The decision to rush the supplies and the choice of equipment also reflect debate in the Pentagon and the Philippine army command about the kind of military aid the United States should supply.
Many U.S. counterinsurgency experts contend that Pentagon and Philippine military commanders have focused too heavily on helicopters, planes and armored personnel carriers, overlooking the fact that the Philippine army does not have basic equipment to fight the communist New People's Army.
Reflecting this view, retired Army general Richard G. Stilwell told the subcommittee that the Philippine army, as now structured, trained and equipped, is incapable of fighting the insurgency.
The general, who visited the Philippines last August, said he found no consensus within the Aquino government on a counterinsurgency strategy.
He listed among the Philippine army's acute shortcomings: new factionalism within the officer corps; absence of training in the "fundamentals of counterinsurgency operations"; no logistics network to provide soldiers in the field with food; lack of timely intelligence, and "atrocious" medical care.
Acknowledging his was "a gloomy assessment," Stilwell warned that unless present trends are reversed, the Communist Party would "steadily increase its control of the rural areas while continuing to infiltrate the cities."
Another witness, Richard J. Kessler, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, provided a similarly gloomy picture of the current military situation there. He said Aquino has become isolated and the military disenchanted because of "creeping" graft, corruption and favoritism under her leadership.
Sigur was more optimistic, saying Aquino was "moving in the right direction" to repair civilian-military relations and address the military's well-known grievances.
He said he believes the Communist Party has lost "some political momentum" and that the "dramatic growth" of its New People's Army during the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos has been "stalled," even if no "significant decline" is visible in its ranks.