IT was barely a ripple in the water to speak of, but like sharks catching a sniff of the barest tinge of blood flowing from a badly injured prey in the ocean, news of Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines meeting with a then-ranking official of the country to discuss “mutual interests in the field of defense” was enough to fuel hopes for Filipino military modernization enthusiasts with a moist eye for the multi-role fighter (MRF)—object of a long, elusive quest.
Among the key topics that then Department of National Defense (DND) Officer in Charge (OIC) Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. discussed with Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines Annika Thunborg on December 21, 2022, was Sweden’s offer to supply the Saab-made JAS 39 “Gripen” MRF to the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
The Swedish Gripen is one of the two top contenders for the PAF MRF Acquisition Project, with the other jet fighter being the US Lockheed Martin F-16V “Viper,” the latest version of the American-made aircraft now being supplied in quantities in many air forces around the world.
The JAS-39 is classified as the most reliable “swing-role combat aircraft” available in the world market.
The Swedish-made fighter requires minimal personnel and ground support equipment for dispersed operations, and can operate from small-unprepared roads. It is also equipped with sophisticated radar, sensors and weapons.
“The OIC, DND and the Swedish Ambassador discussed the PAF MRF Acquisition Project and the offer of Swedish defense and aerospace company Saab AB of Gripen aircraft, which has been on the PAF’s shortlist,” the DND said in a news statement. In the same statement, Faustino recognized the potential of bilateral cooperation between the Philippines and Sweden, particularly in the defense industry and logistics sectors.
“Both officials stressed on the importance of building a strong air defense. Relatedly, the OIC, DND underscored the need to improve capabilities in the context of regional security developments, mentioning the shift in focus of the Philippine defense sector from internal security to external defense,” it added.
The DND said Faustino recognized the potential of bilateral cooperation between the Philippines and Sweden, particularly in the defense industry and logistics. Prior to the meeting of the two officials, there were unconfirmed reports that the Gripen had already been selected by the Philippines as its preferred MRF.
Defense and military officials, however, are still to confirm these claims. The Philippine defense community has long been waiting for the MRF following the decommissioning of its Northrop F-5 “Tiger” jet fighter fleet in 2005.
The MRFs being sought by the PAF are expected to augment the existing fleet of 12 Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50PHs, which are capable of speeds of 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 that is selected must be able to integrate with existing radar systems that have a range of about 250 nautical miles.
MRF project already approved, but…
EARLIER, then PAF chief Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas Sr. said the MRF project had been approved by former President Rodrigo R. Duterte. Despite the approval, funding is still to be allocated for this project, which is supposed to be part of Horizon 2 of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program slated for 2018 to 2022.
However, on January 9, Faustino resigned as DND OIC and was replaced by former AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr.
Cited as reason for his resignation was the appointment of Gen. Andres Centino as AFP chief-of-staff on January 6, replacing Medal of Valor awardee Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro.
In his command guidance, which was provided to journalists on January 12 at the sidelines of the AFP Command Conference at Camp Aguinaldo, Galvez vowed to focus on the military’s modernization in order to address territorial threats being faced by the country.
“[We will] address the growing and significant challenges to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty by guaranteeing full support to the modernization program, strengthening coordinative mechanisms with interagency partners, and leveraging and maximizing with the country’s defense partnerships,” was how Galvez put his priority.
Horizon 3 of the AFP Modernization Program is scheduled from 2023 to 2028. The military is supposed to acquire external defense equipment in this phase such as missile systems and MRFs, among others.
These platforms are to be procured to help the AFP fulfill its external defense mandate, a mission the MRFs can help in. Galvez also wants existing defense initiatives and efforts towards attaining the vision of a transformed defense organization that guarantees Philippine security, territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is aside from transforming the DND into a reliable partner in national development and a strategic partner in the region.
Around P62 billion is needed to acquire these MRFs. 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 that is scheduled from 2023 to 2028.
“The MRF, just like the other priority [projects] of the Air Force, is still within our list. It is in Horizon 3,” Faustino earlier said. He added acquiring these assets for the PAF is “part of [our] wish list”.
F-5, F-8 decommissioning
THE PAF, prior to the delivery of the FA-50PHs, used to operate the Mach 1.6-capable F-5s, which was acquired in 1964 to augment the subsonic North American F-86 “Sabrejet” fighter aircraft procured in the late 1950s.
The PAF F-5 jet fighters were armed with two 20mm automatic cannons and wingtip-fitted AIM-9s “Sidewinder” heat-seeking missiles; they were very maneuverable and could turn and engage well in dogfights against larger and more capable counterparts.
At the time, the Philippines was one of the largest operators of the F-5s in Southeast Asia, with an estimated 30 to 41 units acquired. The aircraft were used for air and ground attack missions by the PAF.
It also acquired around 35 Vought F-8 “Crusader” jet fighters to support the F-5 fleet in 1977. However, this aircraft had a short service life in PAF colors as it consumes a large amount of fuel in flight.
Adding to the woes of the F-8s in PAF service was the difficulty of finding spare parts for the plane, a severe problem as the primary operator of the fighter jet, the United States, retired this type years earlier. These factors prompted the Philippines to ground the F-8s by 1988.
The aircraft was finally withdrawn from service in 1991 after the fleet was badly damaged by the Mount Pinatubo eruption.
In 2005, the Philippines decommissioned its remaining F-5A/B fleet, including those received from Taiwan and South Korea, due to lack of funds and airframe attrition.
It reconfigured its fleet of SIAI-Marchetti jet trainers into light attack aircraft and used it for ground and air defense missions until the arrival of the more capable FA-50PHs.