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The Philippines Badly Needs Air Power

August 28, 2021
Via Wikimedia Commons.

In late June the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced a “possible Foreign Military Sale” to the Philippines of 12 single engine F-16C/D multirole fighters along with armaments and spare parts worth $2.43 billion. The DSCA detailed two additional batches of arms sales that included a dozen AGM-84L Harpoon missiles and 24 AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The total value of this package is an estimated $2.7 billion making it among the largest in ASEAN this decade. The US government is also pursuing FMS’ with Indonesia, whose air force is rumored to be vying for the F-15EX, and Singapore–a future operator of the fifth-generation F-35A–that are meant for solidifying alliances with these countries.

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) has been evaluating a multirole fighter for several years now as part of its modernization effort. The preference for a single engine model that allows beyond visual range (BVR) targeting narrowed their choice to the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen–both aircraft are operated by neighboring militaries. While Saab pushed hard for its fighter the longstanding relationship with the US still counts regardless of the dismissive signaling from Manila. On June 24 the DSCA all but confirmed the PAF’s choice for rebuilding its fleet but the cost of the fighters, which comprise 10 F-16C Block 70/72 and two F-16D Block 70/72, together with their armaments and spares reaches an exorbitant $2.45 billion. This overshadows the current annual budget for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in 2021 that’s only $4.26 billion.

The entire arms package detailed in the DSCA’s announcement had two further batches of weaponry; $42.4 million for AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II air-to-air missiles and $120 million for 12 AGM-84L-1 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The latter are the air-launched variety and their role is obvious–as a deterrent to Chinese territorial claims over the Philippines’ western maritime borders. The Harpoons being readied for the PAF are a modest inventory compared with the US government’s plans to send Taiwan 400 surface-launched Harpoons and 100 transporters at an unspecified date. Once completed this $2.37 billion arms sale will make the beleaguered island nation impervious from a naval blockade by China.

If this arms sale pushes through the squadron of F-16C/D’s and their weaponry costs an estimated $2.7 billion and the PAF may balk at the amount even if its payments are structured in tranches. In 2020 the DSCA published details of sales for either AH-1Z or AH-64E attack helicopters for the AFP but the acquisitions were never confirmed. The Philippine military’s need for attack helicopters stemmed from the Battle of Marawi in 2017 when the combat aircraft sent to the fight were found inadequate for continuous air support. If the PAF goes ahead with its 12 F-16C/D’s and these are delivered in the next five years the branch can be satisfied by completing its Flight Plan 2028. There’s also the advantage of a global supply chain for supporting the F-16’s flown by US allies in four continents.

The DSCA’s announcement came just weeks before the AFP suffered its worst peacetime casualties when a C-130H Hercules transport crashed in Jolo leaving 52 passengers dead. The freak accident highlights the obsolescence haunting the aerial branch’s fleet. Although the PAF today is better equipped to protect the country’s territory and monitor threats with its drones and other surveillance assets it does lack a genuine deterrent for challenging aggressive neighbors like China. The most encouraging sign yet that the PAF might arrange for the acquisition of F-16C/D’s is Manila’s assurance on July 30 that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US stays in place. Upholding the VFA means the AFP is able to train its branches along with contingents from the US military.

Below is a convenient tabulation that details the DSCA’s F-16C/D offering to the PAF:

10 F-16C Block 70/72

2 F-16D Block 70/72

15 M61A1 Vulcan 20mm cannon
24 AMRAAM AIM-120C-7/8
24 AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II
12 AGM-84L-1 Harpoon Block II
6 Mk-82 500 lb bombs
6 Mk-82 500 lb inert training bombs

15 F-100/110 engines
15 iPDG
15 AN/APG-83 AESA radars
15 modular mission computers
15 LN-260 embedded GPS/INS
15 tactical radio systems
48 LAU-129 missile launchers
6 sniper pods
*JDAM bomb kits
*ammunition for 20mm cannon

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