‘On a wing and a prayer’


DESPITE some problems with funding, the ongoing modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) still continues to attract foreign weapons system manufacturers.

This was proven anew during the Air Force Symposium (AFS) 2023 on June 21, 2023, at the Marriott Hotel in Pasay City, which featured exhibits and presentations from prominent defense manufacturers—among them Lockheed Martin, Israel Aerospace Industries, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), Airbus Defense and Space, Saab and Diehl Defense.

Of these, two of the most interesting are Lockheed Martin and Saab, which are currently in competition in the ongoing bidding and negotiation for the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) multirole fighter (MRF) project considered to be the most ambitious and prestigious of all the AFP’s modernization programs.

As of this writing, the Department of National Defense (DND) has yet to announce the winning bidder for the MRF project, the contract for which is estimated to reach a whopping P62 billion.

This includes the airframes, weapons systems and integrated logistics support.

Lockheed Martin is pushing for the latest version of its F-16s, the “Viper,” while Saab is offering its JAS-39 “Gripen” to the PAF.

The “Viper,” also known as the F-16V, is classified as a fourth-generation MRF and formally launched in February 2012.

It is operated by many nations in the world and can be fitted with a variety of missiles, bombs, radars and other targeting systems.

It has a maximum speed of Mach 2.0 and can be integrated with the US Air Force’s stealth fighters, the fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s.

Meanwhile, the JAS-39 is also classified as a fourth-generation multirole fighter and tagged as the most reliable “swing-role combat aircraft” available in the world. It requires minimal personnel and ground support equipment for “dispersed” operations and can operate on small unprepared roads.

It is also armed with sophisticated radars, sensors and weapons.

Sources said that the DND is expected to make an announcement about the MRF project soon.

Philippine Air Force (PAF) chief Lt. Gen. Stephen P. Parreño (center), assisted by PAF vice
commander Maj. Gen. Ramon J. Guiang (left), presents a memento to Department of National Defense Assistant Secretary for Logistics, Acquisitions and Self- Reliant Defense Posture Joselito B. Ramos (right), who is representing Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” C. Teodoro Jr. as guest of honor.

Retrofitting, acquisition of more modern FA-50s

AS this developed, a KAI executive pitched to the PAF the practicality of upgrading its existing FA-50PH fleet or acquiring more capable versions of the South Korean-made light jet fighter during the just-concluded AFS 2023.

KAI Regional Manager and Chief, Aircraft BD and Sustainment Kim Sang Eung made this pitch during his presentation and recommended that PAF also consider acquiring “three upgraded FA-50 squadrons at three key points for covering the whole of Philippine territory and rapid response to threats.”

He also suggested that the PAF look into the upgrade of its existing 12 FA-50PHs in service, making them capable of conducting air-to-ground, air-to-sea, and air-to-air mission objectives.

This includes equipping these aircraft with an assortment of radar and targeting systems along with a 300-gallon external fuel tank to increase the FA-50PH’s combat range.

Kim said these proposals are the “most cost-effective solutions” in line with PAF’s objectives of being a “credible and agile air force adaptable to modern warfare and responsive to national and regional security developments.”

The KAI executive also stressed that their FA-50 is “the most cost-efficient solution that customers around the world opt to procure as next-generation multirole fighter aircraft.”

Kim also said the “advanced combat capability of the FA-50 provides customers with more choice for flexible operation.”

The FA-50PH has a top speed of Mach 1.5 or one and a half times the speed of sound and can be fitted with air-to-air missiles, including the AIM-9 “Sidewinder” air-to-air and heat-seeking missiles aside from light automatic cannons and bombs.

A total of 12 FA-50s were acquired from KAI for P18.9 billion.

The deliveries commenced in November 2015 and were completed in May 2017.

The FA-50PH had its “baptism of fire” during the Battle for Marawi, which raged for five months in 2017.

Also, Kim said the PAF should look into their KF-21 “Boramae,” which they classed as a “fifth/sixth-generation fighter” currently undergoing development.

He added that this aircraft “has an affordable life cycle in its class” and “less problematic in export control.”

Kim said the KF-21 has a “customizable aircraft configuration” and can be integrated with various weapons based on customers’ preference.

The KF-21 is a South Korean fighter aircraft development program, with Indonesian involvement, with the goal of producing an advanced multirole fighter for South Korea and Indonesia.

The program is led by the South Korean government, which has 60 percent of the program’s shares.

Indonesia took a 20-percent stake in the program in 2010, while private partners, including KAI, hold the remaining 20.

South Korea is expected to field the KF-21 by 2026. Its primary intended users are the Republic of Korea Air Force and the Indonesian Air Force.

The KF-21 is South Korea’s second domestic fighter jet development program following the FA-50.

Long wait for MRFs

FILIPINO defense enthusiasts as well as the defense community have long been waiting for the successful conclusion of the MRF project ever since the PAF decommissioned its Northrop F-5 “Tiger” jet fighter fleet in 2005 due to airframe aging and lack of spare parts.

The MRFs being sought by the PAF are expected to augment the existing fleet of 12 Korean KAI FA-50PHs, which are capable of speeds up to Mach 1.5 and acquired by the Philippines from 2015 to 2017.

The Philippines’s 12-plane contract with KAI is worth P18.9 billion and was signed in February 2014.

PAF MRF requirements stipulate that the offered aircraft must be “fourth generation or higher.”

It also states the proponent must be able to supply 12 MRFs capable of patrolling the country’s waters and airspace.

Any aircraft to be selected must be able to integrate with existing radar systems that have a range of about 250 nautical miles.

Then PAF chief Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas Sr. said the MRF project had been approved by former President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

However, despite the approval, funding is still to be allocated for this project, which is supposed to be part of Horizon 2 of the AFP Modernization Program slated for 2018 to 2022.

But with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the MRF project along with other big-ticket items in the AFP Modernization Program were either placed on hold or moved to Horizon 3, which is scheduled for 2023 to 2028.

Evolving security threats

AS this developed, DND Secretary Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. said that only partnership and cooperation between like-minded states could help resolve evolving security threats.

“The security environment in which we operate is besieged by constantly evolving and complex challenges such as asymmetric warfare, cyber attacks, terrorism and geopolitical tensions,” Teodoro said in his message to the AFS 2023, which was read by Defense Assistant Secretary for Logistics, Acquisitions, and Self-Reliant Defense Posture Joselito Ramos.

The AFS is part of the PAF’s pre-76th anniversary activities, having been established on July 1, 1947.

“These are realities that no nation can successfully control alone and pointing to the undeniable truth that we need each other and that it is through partnership, cooperation, and a sheer commitment that nations can effectively address emerging and future threats in national and regional security,” the DND chief added.

Teodoro also stressed that the Philippines must  adapt to the current trends and evolving technologies as rapid advancements, especially in unmanned aerial systems, artificial intelligence, and space capabilities present both opportunities and challenges.

“By fostering innovation and cultivating partnerships with nations at the forefront of these constantly evolving technologies, we position ourselves as key players in the Indo-Pacific region as it bolsters our defense capabilities and maintains regional stability,” he added.

Also, the DND chief said its constant ties with its allies would allow the Philippines to face security challenges caused by being an archipelagic nation.

“Moreover, the unique challenges faced by the Philippines as an archipelagic nation demand a comprehensive approach. To this end, joint exercises, capacity building programs and intelligence sharing are pivotal in enhancing our maritime domain awareness, countering transnational crimes and ensuring the safety and security of our territorial waters and skies. It is therefore a source of pride that our PAF has a rich history of cooperation with other Air Forces,” Teodoro stressed.

This includes the trilateral air patrol with Indonesia and Malaysia and exemplifies Philippine commitment in addressing shared concerns over common areas of maritime interests.

“Meanwhile, the largest ‘Balikatan’ exercise this year and the revival of Cope Thunder in our country after 33 years highlight the US and Philippine commitment to enhancing interoperability and responsiveness through joint exercises; hence, we must continue to nurture and expand our relations while actively seeking new avenues for cooperation,” the DND chief stressed.

Image credits: PAF