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The Philippine Air Force Really Wants Gripens

October 23, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week the state-owned Philippine News Agency (PNA) scooped Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealing the “Gripen” was the likeliest choice for the air force’s next-generation multirole fighter jet. The Philippine Air Force (PAF) are now in the second phase, or Horizon 2, of their Flight Plan 2028 modernization and have a budget worth $2.6 billion to pay for what it needs. Hardly two years since receiving a dozen FA-50 lead-in fighters from South Korea, the PAF are looking to augment these souped-up trainers with a dedicated supersonic strike platform.

Another reason for ordering the JAS-39 C/D Gripen is it costs less than a brand new F-16V, which is priced above $100 million per plane.

Despite Lorenzana’s remarks, however, there’s little evidence of the Department of National Defense (DND) or even the Duterte administration signing any agreement with Stockholm over military-to-military cooperation in the coming months. Ordering at least a half dozen Gripen multirole fighters will require guarantees such as after sales support and training programs for Filipino pilots. If each Gripen costs below $75 million the total price will balloon anyway to cover its weapons and maintenance outlays in a 20-year service life.

It’s still possible for the PAF to forego the Gripens in favor of either additional FA-50’s, or another half dozen Super Tucano propeller-driven ground attack aircraft, or attack helicopters, or medium altitude drones. The FA-50’s in particular have endeared themselves to the PAF, whose pilots earned valuable combat experience during the Battle of Marawi in 2017. But these supersonic jets aren’t suited for patrolling national airspace at a time when Manila is trying to find a mutually beneficial outcome in its territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

If the DND orders at least six Gripen C/D’s before 2022–an election year–this still counts as a victory for Saab whose global ambitions are focused on emerging markets. It’s also a publicity boost for the Gripen as the only viable single engine multirole fighter in the market compared to the high end F-16V and the low end JF-17, with a multitude of souped up trainers between them. This improves its chances with the air forces of India and Indonesia, who both need single engine fighters.

For the PAF to have a squadron of Gripens is significant too as it marks the branch’s revival after a long and steady decline. At its peak when the late President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law on September 21 1972 the PAF boasted more than a hundred fixed wing combat aircraft and just as many helicopters acquired from the US. At the time, the fleet included 60 F-86F Sabre’s and at least 20 F-86D’s. These were augmented by 23 F-5B Freedom Fighters that excelled as both interceptors and close air support. Between 1978 and 1988 the PAF even boasted a squadron of 25 F-8H Crusaders transferred from the US Navy.

But all these airframes were retired for a lack of spare parts and qualified service personnel. When the last operational F-5B’s got pulled from service in 2005 the only fixed wing combat aircraft left in the PAF’s inventory were a collection of OV-10 Bronco’s and trainers (jet and prop-driven) modified to carry ordnance. Only time will tell if the PAF acquires a broad maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) capability for its upcoming assets.

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