There used to be a running joke that the Philippine Air Force (PAF) was “all air” and “no force” – a jibe at the fact that the country’s air defense arsenal is among the weakest in the world. Since 2005 the PAF has relied on the use of their helicopter fleet, with not a single jet-engine aircraft in the inventory. That changed by 2013, when then-President Noynoy Aquino sought to fill this gap by overseeing the acquisition of fighter jets from South Korea. Now, the PAF have more teeth to use in their operations.
The total order of 12 FA-50 Fighting Eagle jet fighters from Korea is due to be completed this year, an initial six have already been received by the PAF and are now in use in their counter-insurgency operations. The added hardware not only returns the “force” in the Philippine Air Force, but is also an indication of the Philippines’ rising economy. In the South-East Asian region, only lower-income countries like Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Laos have fewer air assets. Even Vietnam, with an economy considerably smaller than the Philippines’, have scores of Russian-made fighter jets to boast.
It is undoubtedly a morale booster for the Air Force, seeing their arsenal return to supersonic capabilities. It was in 2005 that the PAF retired its’ last jet aircraft fleet of American-made F-5s, by that time those fighter jets were more than 20 years old. Any morale boost will be welcomed by Air Force personnel, who are facing unprecedented threats from external forces.
The lack of air-to-air fighting capabilities made the Philippines a sitting duck for any attack by another country. The deplorable state of the military was deemed to be the reason why the Chinese navy swiftly took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, there were no assets available to respond immediately to the arrival of the foreign vessels. At the same time, there are new threats emerging in the Benham Rise – a maritime domain that the Philippines have sovereign rights over. It would be a huge embarrassment if China or any other external entity would usurp our claim to that territory as well.
These threats then require more investments from the government to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The previous administration of Aquino made modernization a priority, hence why there were demonstrably more acquisitions of modern defense assets during his time than in recent memory. The incumbent President Duterte once criticized the acquisition of FA-50 jets as “a waste of money”, saying that they are the priority of the country is instead in counter-insurgency which according to him these new fighter jets “have no use”.
Funnily enough, these same fighter jets were ordered by Duterte to be used in counter-insurgency operations against the New People’s Army just this month. Though, the President does have a point in saying that domestic threats are also a reason for concern. The current administration has declared that the priority for modernization will be for counter-insurgency measures, which means that hardware geared for external threats such as fighter jets and advanced battleships will be put on hold in favor of night-capable helicopters and fast-moving attack ships.
The shift in priority makes sense, but the Duterte administration should not forget that a global superpower is causing trouble in our own backyard. There will be nothing more demoralizing for our military – and our people in general – than to lose more territory, this will happen if they do not have any measures to prevent such from happening.