By Dennis Jay Santos
Sixteen helicopters that the Philippines is buying from Canada will not be used in combat, Manila’s defense chief insisted Thursday after Canadian officials ordered a review of the deal, saying it could violate Ottawa’s strict regulations on weapons sales.
The decision to review the sale over concerns that the Philippines could breach the rules by deploying the helicopters in counter-insurgency operations came a day after the two countries signed the deal valued at U.S. $233 million (12 billion pesos), reports said. Manila agreed to purchase the 16 aircraft to replace reconfigured Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denied that the Bell 412 helicopters would be used in combat operations against insurgents.
“The 16 brand new Bell 412 helicopters, which we are procuring for the Armed Forces of Philippines, will primarily be used for the transportation of personnel and supplies, ferrying wounded and injured soldiers, and the conduct of humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations,” Lorenzana said in a statement. “They are not attack or close support aircraft.”
While the aircraft might be deployed to support the government’s international security operations, “their role is limited to those that I mentioned,” he added.
“Should the Canadian government choose to discontinue their sale of the aircraft to us, then we will procure them from another source,” Lorenzana said.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government had strict regulations on weapons sales.
“We are going to make sure before this deal or any other deal goes through that we are abiding by the rules,” Trudeau told reporters during a university tour in Chicago, according to media reports.
Canada’s trade ministry said the deal was agreed upon about five years ago under the understanding that the helicopters would be for search-and-rescue missions.
Elsewhere, the Toronto Globe and Mail quoted Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland as saying she was prepared to block the sale of the helicopters to the Philippines, if necessary.
Confusion arose on Tuesday after Manila’s military chief of plans, Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla, said the choppers would be used in the government’s internal security operations, according to reports.
Internal security operations can include air support against Islamic State-linked militants in the south and against communist rebels in the countryside.
Asked to comment on the controversy, Padilla told BenarNews that the government had specified in the contract that it required “combat utility helicopters (CUH)” and they would be used primarily for humanitarian-related assignments.
“The Canadians were among those who helped us following the wrath of Supertyphoon Yolanda and employed similar helicopters,” he said, using the local name of a storm that cut through the Philippines in 2013, causing massive destruction and leaving at least 6,300 dead across the Philippines.
“We are confident that they are fully aware of the utilization of the CUH,” he said. “Having said that, we hope this deal will not be politicized.”
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.