By Norman Sison, VERA Files
Steel shutters protect the building's front walls while a heavy steel gate and a security camera secure the main door. No one would have an idea of the business activities going on inside the three-storey commercial building, save for the company sign that says "United Defense."
Inside the building, automated machine tools cut precision metal parts that, when assembled, become M-4 carbines---the shorter and lighter versions of the M-16 rifle. However, unlike the M-4s used by the United States Army, the United Defense assault rifles have a key feature that makes them less prone to malfunctions.
The M-16 debuted in 1965 during the Vietnam War. It was lighter than the US military's previous battle rifle, the M-14, and had less recoil, making it easier to aim. It used a smaller bullet but was still as powerful as the larger-caliber rifles such as the Russian-built AK-47 used by North Vietnamese forces.
However, US troops were horrified to find out that the M-16 was sensitive to water, dirt and mud---which Vietnam had tons of---making it prone to malfunctions. In one clash, a Marine platoon left with 72 men and came back with 19. Troops were killed because their M-16 rifles jammed.
Also, because of its design, accumulated gunpowder residue can cause jamming or, worse, the bullet to fire a round in the chamber due to overheating. The solution was to clean and lubricate the rifle regularly. But the risk of the weapon jamming during a gun battle remained.
In 2008, a team of Philippine Navy commandos made an amphibious assault on the island of Jolo. Abu Sayyaf militants pinned them down before they could get to the beach.
"The troops were only [submerged] in a foot of water and some of their Colt CAR-15 rifles jammed," related one lieutenant of the Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), whose identity was withheld for security reasons.
Commandos of the NAVSOG---the Philippine equivalent of the US Navy Seals---said they needed a rifle that could endure rigorous battlefield conditions. This prompted them to seek the services of the United Defense Manufacturing Corporation, which describes itself as a "research and development company passionate about weaponry".
After two and a half years of research and development with the NAVSOG, United Defense designed an M-4 variant with a pneumatic valve and rod assembly---hence the name PVAR rifle ---that made it much less prone to malfunctions.
Foreign security specialists are astounded by the PVAR rifle's reliability. In April the NAVSOG recommended that the PVAR be designated as its standard rifle. Their recommendation was endorsed to Navy Chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama.
In September, President Aquino turned down a contract worth P213 million for the purchase of imported 1,800 assault rifles intended for the Philippine National Police's (PNP) elite Special Action Force after he found it suspiciously expensive.
Meanwhile, Filipino nationalists questioned the need to import rifles when they can be manufactured locally at less expense. They stressed that the Philippines' ongoing territorial row with China stressed the urgency of building a local defense industry.
There are existing laws encouraging the development of a local arms industry. The Constitution's Section 12, Article XII dictates that "the state shall promote the preferential use of Filipino labor, domestic materials and locally produced goods, and adopt measures that help make them competitive".
The 1936 Flag Law, Commonwealth Act No. 138, prescribes that the government give preference to Filipino products in its procurements. Republic Act No. 5183, passed in 1967, dictates that procurement contracts be awarded only to bidders that are 60 percent Filipino-owned.
There is also Republic Act No. 7898, or the 1995 military modernization law, which states that the armed forces should "give preference to Filipino contractors and suppliers".
United Defense was invited by the PNP to bid for the assault rifle contract. But the company declined because of a so-called "50 percent previous contract" provision in the 2003 government procurement law, according to United Defense chief executive Gene Cariño.
Republic Act No. 9184 was intended to ensure that only qualified bidders participate in biddings. The contract provision rules that a bidder must have made a past sale of at least 50 percent of the price of the government contract it is bidding for to qualify.
"Much as the PNP encouraged us to join the bidding, it was useless to bid," Cariño said. "Without the government procuring from us, we have no mass base to start from and we will not be able to compete as a world-class weapons manufacturer."
A big irony here is that United Defense has been exporting the rifle. It is already in the hands of foreign security agencies guarding merchant ships against Somali pirates.
United Defense has written Senator Panfilo Lacson, who heads the Senate committee on national defense and security, requesting a review of existing procurement law.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")