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The Philippine Air Force Needs To Level Up

May 13, 2020

The PAF operates a dozen FA-50 lead-in fighters.

The impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated two powerful trends that will shape the 21st century. First is the outsized role of China in world affairs. Second is the relative decline of the United States as an unchallenged superpower whose status depends on overwhelming military strength. The coming months are going to be tense as China and the US try resolving their differences by force, even if it means just moving aircraft and ships into theaters where armed conflict might break out.

This is bad news for the Philippines and its modern history shows why.

For perspective, the last time strong naval forces contested the Asia-Pacific was during World War 2. The Imperial Japanese Navy had grown to a size that threatened the region and its colonial overlords who were protected foremost by the US and Royal Navies and then by the lesser European navies. In late 1941 and 1942 the Japanese managed to inflict a historic defeat on the Allies and conquer much of China and Southeast Asia but this was soon reversed. The same pattern has almost manifested today but with a switch in roles. Today the Chinese military is assuming a size that threatens its immediate neighbors who need a steadfast alliance with the US to protect their sovereignty.

Regardless of the statements made by its current leader the Philippines is in such a bind. The Philippine Air Force (PAF) may have a detailed modernization plan to 2028 but its end result could achieve very little. After all it’s the PAF, together with the Philippine Navy (PN), who must bear the joined burden of territorial defense as the country’s maritime borders are threatened by annexation. This is an almost impossible task with just a dozen multirole fighters and several ISR aircraft at its disposal. As the 2020s get underway time is running short for strengthening the PAF’s fleet and technological reach as the rivalry pitting China against the US deepens. There are five strategic breakthroughs to watch out for in the 2020s the PAF must be prepared for; using “strategic” to describe them conveys their impact on the regional balance of power.

Since 2018 the US, through official and public means, has expressed its wish for an arms control treaty with China. This is understandable when the Trump administration seems reluctant to negotiate an extension for the START nuclear accord with Russia after the INF treaty collapsed. If START does expire by 2021 the main antagonists of the new Cold War are left unconstrained from expanding their nuclear arsenals at an astonishing pace. This in turn fuels the development of intermediate-range missiles and even space-based weapons.

Ignoring the grave conditions of an all out nuclear arms race the missile technology coming from outside the West is extremely advanced. This might be obvious in the Middle East but it’s just as worrisome in Asia where anti-satellite weapons and hypersonic missiles are rapidly developing. Different varieties of theater-wide air defenses, anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, and precision rocket artillery are being adopted in greater numbers by US allies and rogue states alike.

Another competition is found in the realm of aerospace where China is a regional leader in stealth technology and unmanned systems. It’s no secret a Chinese state-owned company will soon reveal a next-generation strategic bomber with stealth features. The US won’t be left behind and is expected to unveil its B-21 Raider in a matter of years. The PAF needs to envision its domain being crowded by stealthy strategic bombers and their unmanned escorts whose characteristics match (or surpass) piloted fighter aircraft.

Since the Philippines is an archipelago surrounded by maritime routes the PAF can’t ignore naval matters when China is rolling out aircraft carriers as fast as it can make them. The extent of China’s carrier ambitions isn’t too clear but the PLAN intends to maintain both conventional and nuclear-powered models. With potential carrier strike groups emerging from China and Japan just as the US Navy is reinforcing its allies in Asia the PAF needs resources for monitoring naval activities and possibly deterring these in conjunction with surface-based defense infrastructure. This isn’t possible with the size of its budget.

If the PAF must stay on top of regional security and anticipate great power conflict it needs to grasp how artificial intelligence (AI) will accelerate military innovation. AI is the essential tool for harnessing enormous data sets to achieve valuable outcomes. For the Chinese military to harness AI means it has a better understanding of US military strength during wartime. The US, on the other hand, is well-served by robust intelligence gathering tools powered by AI. So whether it’s enhancing command and control or valuable scientific research AI’s utility can’t be ignored. A concrete example of its usage in real world operations is centralizing the entire Philippine military’s network infrastructure, thereby helping leaders make better decisions while a crisis is unfolding.

The threat of a nuclear arms race; the non-stop proliferation of missile technology; the advent of next-generation strategic bombers; the naval build up on either end of the Pacific Ocean; the mainstreaming of AI; these are five strategic breakthroughs the Philippines ignores at its own peril. So it now falls on the PAF to think deeply about its mission and long-term goals within a budget-constrained military. It can no longer afford to remain a marginal branch with meager resources.

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