MANILA — The crashes of two American-supplied military helicopters last weekend have added fuel to an unusually intense period of anti-Americanism in the Philippines and raised questions about the quality of Washington's military aid to its closest Asian ally.
The two separate crashes, which killed a total of 11 Philippine military officers, including a key army general, brought to five the number of U.S.-made UH-1 "Huey" helicopters that have crashed in less than three months. And in recent days, several prominent Filipino commentators and senior military officers have accused the United States of providing defective, secondhand equipment for the struggle against the nation's escalating Communist insurgency.
Maximo Soliven, publisher of the Philippine Star, declared Tuesday: "Those helicopters are eliminating our generals faster than the (Communist) liquidation squads, whose running scores (in killings) go up as high in rank as colonels and majors only.
'Flying Coffins' Not Wanted
"Sure, we need helicopters--but not repainted flying coffins and assorted junk," he said.
Sixteen people have been killed in Huey crashes here. Philippine defense officials have said the military can afford only used Vietnam War-vintage helicopters because they are 10 times cheaper than new ones.
But the Philippine Inquirer, the nation's largest-circulation daily newspaper, said this week that "the greater cost is being paid in terms of the lives of Filipino soldiers who continue to get killed in air tragedies involving these choppers."
Several Philippine generals, in recent interviews with The Times, said they and their Joint Chiefs of Staff have been questioning for months the quality of aircraft, armor and general combat materiel that the U.S. government has been supplying. The military aid program is part of a $900-million agreement that permits Washington to maintain two large military bases north of Manila.
Noting that the Pentagon earlier this year inadvertently sent ski parkas to the Philippine military, which must fight year-round in tropical jungles, and last summer delivered a squadron of 30-year-old T-33 fighter jets, three of which would not even start, one senior army officer asked, "Are the Americans secretly trying to make us lose the war only so they can step in here and take over?"
Several Philippine military sources further charged that 10 rebuilt Huey helicopters sent as emergency aid to the Philippines last June were defective and, ultimately, have done more harm than good. At least two of the 10 were among those that have crashed, and the entire Philippine air force fleet of 55 Hueys had to be grounded for several weeks last September after maintenance workers discovered faulty parts in the tail rotors.
On Tuesday, though, Maj. Gen. Antonio Sotelo, commander of the Philippine air force, refused to blame the equipment for the two weekend crashes, which occurred during darkness and bad weather.
Both helicopters, Sotelo said, "took off at night and in bad weather in violation of regulations," in one case because an army general apparently ordered the pilot, a lieutenant, to take off against the pilot's advice.
The recent shipment of used helicopters came in response to appeals from Philippine President Corazon Aquino, who had officially requested 130 additional helicopter gunships from America and declared in several speeches that the U.S. government was reneging on its promised military aid.
"Our principal military supplier should not expect our brave soldiers and determined commanders to fight the insurgents with our teeth and hands," Aquino declared.
The helicopters arrived a month after that statement. Ten more are scheduled for delivery next week.
Aquino's pronouncements triggered a continuing onslaught of anti-Americanism, both from within her government and from the extreme political left.
The Philippine Communist Party has charged that the delivery last month of U.S. armored personnel carriers, troop trucks, combat uniforms and boots constituted direct interference in internal Philippine affairs. In apparent retaliation, the guerrillas of the Communist New People's Army have begun targeting American servicemen.
An Oct. 28 ambush killing of three Americans outside the U.S. Clark Air Base 70 miles north of Manila forced base officials to restrict all off-base travel. That restriction was lifted Tuesday, only to be reinstated Wednesday in a massive security exercise that sealed off both U.S. bases as well as four smaller installations in the country. Officials said the surprise, full-battle-gear drill was designed to test American defenses against Communist attacks, and was expected to last through today.
Even among Aquino's closest political and military supporters there have been charges that the U.S. government is trying to undermine her moderate government and justify direct U.S. intervention in a conflict that has claimed 14,000 Filipino lives since 1984.