The Philippines Is Building a Startup Air Force
After a long break, Manila is getting fighter jets again
by KYLE MIZOKAMI
The Philippines hasn’t operated jet fighters for nearly a decade, an uncomfortable state of affairs for a nation that’s increasingly butting heads with Beijing over the South China Sea. Now Manila has begun buying up fighter jets from South Korea.
Last week, officials from Manila and Seoul inked a memorandum of understanding on a wide range of defense issues. MOUs are pretty dry documents, usually involving routine cooperation between nations by means of military training, exercises and technology sharing. But this agreement included the export of a dozen FA-50 Golden Eagle fighter jets, which represents one of South Korea’s first weapons export successes.
A collaboration between Korean Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin, the FA-50 is designed to be both a training plane for student fighter pilots and to function as a light multi-role fighter. It’s a single-engine plane like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but weighs less than half as much. It also lacks stealth features, internal weapons bays and the advanced networking capabilities of the F-35.
But the Golden Eagle does have plenty of things going for it.
It has a powerful engine, allowing it to climb 39,000 feet per minute, an external weapons carriage and a fairly advanced radar. It will have the ability to engage enemies in the air, on the ground and at sea with modern weapons. Since the Golden Eagle doubles as a training plane, its relatively modest performance compared to full-fledged fighters could make it easier to fly — important when you’re training a new generation of fighter pilots.
But most importantly for the Philippines, the FA-50 is affordable. At $38 million each, the FA-50 costs roughly one-third as much as the F-35. Furthermore, being a trainer, operating costs for the plane should be comparatively much, much lower. All of this is crucial considering the Philippines’ defense budget for 2014 is projected to be a mere $1.9 billion.
A country with other priorities
The Philippine Air Force is one of Asia’s oldest air arms, dating back to World War I. During the Cold War the United States supplied Manila with F-5 Freedom Fighters, lightweight fighter-bombers designed for export.
Manila once had more than 60 fighter jets. They were used in counterinsurgency missions against communist and Muslim guerrillas, as well as during the aborted military coup of 1989. They flew reconnaissance missions over disputed islands in the South China Sea. They were even in a film: remember the fighter jets that dropped napalm in Apocalypse Now? Those were F-5 jets from the Philippine Air Force.
The Philippines had a competition to select a new fighter in the 1990s, but the Asian financial crisis of 1997 ended thoughts of buying a new fighter. After 9/11, the country waged a counterinsurgency war against the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf militants, and the idea of the Philippines buying big war weapons went on the back burner.
The air force, already stuck with outdated aircraft, wilted further. Some planes were put in storage only to be scrapped after an erupting volcano damaged them beyond repair. By the time the last of the F-5s were retired in 2005, only five were left in operation.
For the first time in 70 years, the Philippines became a country without fighters.
Enter the Dragon
The Philippines may have never bought fighter planes again were it not for China. Since 2009, the two countries — once thought to be on a friendly trajectory — have verbally sparred over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Both China and the Philippines claim the Scarborough Shoal, a series of reefs and rocks only 120 miles west of the Philippines. The problem is that the Chinese call the same location Huangyan Island, and consider it part of China. The islands aren’t useful for much other than target practice, but it’s a different story under the surface, with bountiful resources including lots of fish and oil.
The Philippine Navy and Chinese coast guard engaged in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal over fishing rights in 2012. China responded to the incident with its coast guard, but the Philippines brought the best game that it could — an old, worn-out ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter that had just been transferred to the Philippine Navy. There was nothing in the form of aircraft that could provide air cover or a quick reaction force to the aging ship.
Starting up all over again
But after almost a decade without fighter planes, the Philippine Air Force faces an uphill climb in restarting its fighter program.
Pilots will have to be found, transferred or trained from scratch. If the PAF can track down its former F-5 Tiger pilots, they’ll have to adapt to a brand new plane with state of the art systems. If the air force uses existing pilots, they will be transitioning to a platform unlike anything they’ve ever flown before.
It’s not just the pilots who will have to work with something new. Engineers and technicians, which up until now have only maintained antiquated helicopters and prop-driven aircraft, will now be expected to maintain a small fleet of high-tech aircraft with fly-by-wire controls, multiple computer systems, an advanced radar and advanced weapons systems such as the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the Maverick air-to-ground missile and satellite-guided bombs.
It’s a tall order and the Philippines will probably lean heavily on contractors for several years until their own personnel are up to speed. Manila will also have to improve the buildings and infrastructure supporting its air force in order to keep the planes flying. Hangars, maintenance depots and storage systems will have to be brought up to a modern level.
Even an early warning system designed to detect aircraft over the South China Sea will have to be built: the Philippine Armed Forces are procuring at least three new air defense radars to monitor the West Philippine Sea. Without it, the Philippines wouldn’t even know when to launch fighters.
The Philippine Armed Forces have their work cut out for them. The planes haven’t been delivered yet, and deliveries could be put on hold if the Philippines’ economy takes a dive.
But the planes have already achieved part of their mission: China reportedly filed a mild protest with South Korea over the impending sale of the planes. Clearly China isn’t too concerned that a dozen light fighters will challenge the might of the Chinese air force, but the fact that it registered a protest means it realizes a confrontation between the two powers in 2016 will be very different from the confrontation of 2012.
Thanks to Mike Yeo of The Base Leg Blog for assistance with this article.