Philippine Air Force modernizes fleet following financial troubles, historical inaction

MELBOURNE, Australia — The Philippines’ defense secretary late last year ordered 32 Black Hawk helicopters for the country — part of an ongoing defense modernization effort driven by territorial disputes and a need for several aerial capabilities.

An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands in a seismically active zone and in the path of typhoons sweeping west toward East Asia from the expanses of the Pacific, the Philippines is regularly beset by natural disasters. Transport aircraft and helicopters provide vital capabilities during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

Coupled with surveillance capabilities, these air assets have proven critical to the Philippine military’s efforts to fight a domestic communist insurgency as well as separatist movements in the south, adding another layer to the security outlook for the U.S. ally.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea also add to the complex situation, with China claiming the Spratly and Paracel islands within its self-proclaimed nine-dash line — claims wholly or partly disputed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the Philippines is left scrambling to catch up amid a tight budget and following a decade of inaction to replace aging defense capabilities. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies within Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the Philippines’ debt has ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Koh told Defense News modernizing the Philippines’ fleet of transport aircraft and helicopters is a primary area of concern for the country, as it has an “outstanding need to carry out modernization of multiple categories of aircraft.”

This is largely a result of a decade, beginning at the turn of the millennium, during which little was done to address the regressing capability of the military. It was then-President Benigno Aquino III who kick-started the country’s modernization effort around 2013.

More recently, the country’s economy experienced a 9.5% contraction in real gross domestic product in 2020, but the defense budget was held steady at 2019 levels, according to two experts with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The disruption of the pandemic to defense procurement has been relatively limited,” Tom Waldwyn and Fenella McGerty wrote in May 2021. “However, some modernization funding was ‘repurposed’ to deal with COVID-19, and although the Department of National Defense is getting most of this back in 2021, some projects, such as the Navy’s corvette program, have now been pushed back to the 2023-2028 time frame.

Tactical air power

The Philippine Air Force ended a 10-year span without a fast-jet combat capability in 2015, when deliveries of 12 Korean Aerospace Industries-made FA-50 trainers/light-attack jets began. The service had retired in 2005 its last Northrop Grumman-made F-5A Freedom Fighters.

The FA-50, developed using KAI’s T-50 Golden Eagle trainer, is equipped with radar technology, air-to-air missiles, and precision-strike capabilities via guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. The Philippines has used the aircraft in counterinsurgency operations since 2017.

Now, the country is considering Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen for its multirole fighter program.

The U.S. State Department in June cleared a potential foreign military sales package for 12 F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft valued at as much as $2.43 billion. The package for the Philippines includes 10 single-seat F-16C and two dual-seat F-16D fighters fitted with active electronically scanned array radars, joint helmet mounted cueing systems, AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles and targeting pods.

The department also approved separate weapons packages involving other missiles to equip the F-16s: a small number of AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles and AGM-84L-1 Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

However, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the F-16 price tag is too expensive, leading to speculation that the Gripen will be the front-runner for the contract. Lorenzana also said he hopes the decision will be made sometime this year.

The Philippines’ urgent need for a front-line fighter jet stems from ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea as well as China’s regional dominance. The Philippine Air Force’s modernization initiative, Flight Plan 2028, calls for an ability to “intercept and neutralize” intruders into both its air defense identification zone and the South China Sea by the end of 2022. However, that target appears unachievable given the Philippines has not put pen to paper for any combat aircraft since deliveries of the first batch of FA-50s.

Going beyond the high-end air combat arena, the Philippines has also carried out a refresh of its counterinsurgency capabilities. In 2020, it took delivery of six EMB 314/A-29B Super Tucanos from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.

There are hopes to grow that fleet to 24 aircraft by 2024; however, no further contracts have been signed.

Transports, helos and surveillance

The Philippines’ geography and geopolitical circumstances mean fixed- and rotary-wing transport platforms are critical to its force structure and heavily committed to moving personnel and cargo in support of counterinsurgency and disaster relief operations.

Like many Western-aligned nations, the Lockheed-made C-130 Hercules is part of the Philippine Air Force’s transport fleet. The service received in early 2021 two refurbished former U.S. Air Force C-130Hs to bolster the small handful of aircraft it operates. But it lost one about six months later in a landing accident during a troop transport run to Jolo Airport in the south, killing 50 of 104 people onboard as well as three people on the ground.

The country has since approved funding to acquire five new-build C-130J Super Hercules as part of its budget appropriations for 2022. The C-130Js will join four Airbus C295M twin-turboprop tactical airlifters as well as three newer C295W variants the country has had on order since 2020. The first of the C295Ws were seen by plane spotters at Spanish Airbus facilities around October 2021. They were slated for delivery in December, but that didn’t happen.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, third from right, receives a brief on the ScanEagle drone received
by the country in March 2018 at Villamor Air Base, southeast of Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, third from right, receives a brief on the ScanEagle drone received by the country in March 2018 at Villamor Air Base, southeast of Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

Likewise, transport helicopters have also been high on the Philippines’ procurement agenda. The venerable Bell UH-1H utility helicopter continues to soldier on in the Air Force, but the service has made its replacement a priority.

The Philippines recently took delivery of 16 S-70i Black Hawk helicopters built under license by Poland’s PZL Mielec, although one was lost in a June crash. The country is already proceeding with the purchase of more Black Hawks, with Lorenzana issuing a notice of award to PZL Mielec in late December for 32 more.

This is in addition to T129B attack helicopters from Turkish Aerospace Industries. The Philippines has six helicopters on order under a $269 million government-to-government contract with Turkey. The Philippine Air Force posted photos of two of the helicopters on its social media pages. Their delivery date was from November to December 2021, although deliveries have yet to occur by press time.

Enhancing the Air Force’s surveillance capability is a key plank of the Philippines’ modernization drive, with a variety of manned and unmanned platforms introduced in recent years to cover everything from basic maritime domain awareness to overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The manned platforms include a pair of Beechcraft TC-90 King Air planes donated to the Philippine Navy for maritime surveillance, and a pair of Cessna 208 Caravans modified for the Air Force.

Unmanned platforms include the Insitu ScanEagle used by both the Air Force and the Navy, with the former having also acquired the Hermes 450 and 900 medium- and high-altitude unmanned aircraft systems, respectively, with four and nine in service.