In my visit to a museum at the birthplace of American aviation in Dayton, Ohio, in April, I saw a display of military aircraft that the United States Air Force (USAF) had developed from the Wright Brothers pedal-powered wooden air machine to the sophisticated space shuttle.
The huge hangars also housed replicas of strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles, which were deployed at the height of the Cold War, as well as stealth fighters and bombers that could deliver smart bombs to knock out radars and missile sites deep in enemy territories.
A Russian MiG fighter, a British Harrier, and a Canadian flying saucer were also in the museum. And some of the static display were quite familiar to visitors from the Philippines, like the F-86F fighter jets, which the famous “Limbas squadron” used in the 1960s when the Philippine Air Force was deployed in Congo as part of a United Nations mission.
Those were the days when the Philippines could stand tall and proud as one of the most capable air forces in this part of the world. It used to have an aerial demonstration “Blue Diamond” squadron of P-51 “Mustangs” and later F-86F Sabres that performed exhibition at air shows. The Philippine Air Force also boasted of F-5A/Bs in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Further development stopped after F-8 Defenders, which was called then as “widow-makers” due to many fatal accidents. The Philippine Air Force stagnated in the 1980s, and the last jets were acquired during the Cory Aquino presidency – the S-211 trainers.
The Philippines hopes to revive its old glory days with a modest plan to upgrade its capabilities and equipment, starting with acquiring combat utility and attack helicopters and an initial squadron of lead-in fighters and long-range maritime aircraft under its “flight plan 2028” modernization program.
The plan calls for shifting the Philippine Air Force’s internal security role to a territorial defense force, detecting, identifying, intercepting and neutralizing intrusions in the country’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), particularly in the South China Sea, and boosting its capabilities from the current area readiness 4 to area readiness 3 and ultimately to area readiness 1.
Upgrade has been very slow almost 7 years after the 15-year modernization program was approved in Congress. While the air force has achieved much in detecting and identifying foreign intrusions into the country’s air and maritime space, it’s been unable to interdict and neutralize them.
Through military assistance from the United States and Japan and initial procurement of modern platform and equipment, including tactical drones, plane-mounted sensors and aerial radars, the Philippines has improved its maritime domain awareness in the vast South China Sea.
Soon, the Philippines can hunt down submarines after the Philippine Navy acquired brand-new AW159
“Wild Cat” anti-submarine helicopters aboard its former United States Coast Guard cutters and later its brand-new South Korean-made frigates. (READ: The need for a credible navy)
Helicopters have limited capabilities and endurance, thus the Philippine Air Force has planned to acquire two long-range maritime patrol aircraft under its “Flight Plan 2028,” looking at what is available in the market, such as the European’s CASA-Airbus C295 MPA, the SAAB 2000 MPA, and other variants of US Lockheed Martin and Indonesia’s PT Dirgantara in an earlier tender in 2015.
Since the 2012, the United States has been deploying on rotation basis its anti-submarine and surveillance planes – the Lockheed Martin’s four-engine P3C Orion and Boeing’s P8 Poseidon – providing intelligence and data on a need basis to its former colony.
Apart from maritime surveillance, which has an endurance of about 16 hours and can climb almost 30,000 feet or 8,600 meters, the plane has a bomb bay which can house conventional torpedoes and depth charges as well as missiles to hit surface and sub-surface targets. The plane can also deliver nuclear bombs.
There were reports that the United States has offered to transfer to its allies – the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam – the 50-year-old but still reliable turbo-prop P3C Orion planes, which will soon be retired and replaced by the P8 Poseidon. The U.S. Navy has a fleet of about 100 P3C Orion and similar planes are still in operations in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
China has almost similar plane, the Y-8 FX6 maritime patrol aircraft. While the P3C Orion has four blades in its propeller, the Chinese version has six blades.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has expressed interest in acquiring one or two planes as long as the transfer of these aircraft is done through Foreign Military Financing (FMF) or Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program, similar to how the 3 United States Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters were done to the Philippine Navy in 2011.
P3C option: Think twice
However, some air force generals say it will be too expensive to maintain and operate an old plane, like the P3C Orion, and it will be useless if the United States will only transfer a bare platform without its avionics, sensors and other equipment. It’s like driving around an old Mercedes Benz without all its accessories and with fuel consumption inefficient.
The Philippines must think twice before agreeing to the transfer of a P3C Orion platform only, or an “as is, where is” basis because the government would end up spending more to refurbish and upgrade the equipment, especially its avionics and surveillance equipment, including the magnetic anomaly detector.
In the 1960s, the Philippines was near super power status in the region because it has op-of-the-line fighters but it has been playing catch up since the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and now lagged behind Southeast Asian neighbors, like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand. and Vietnam.
The Philippine Air Force is almost halfway in its “Flight Plan 2028,” but it has yet to accomplish much-needed equipment upgrade to match its neighbors as procurement of big-ticket items faced delays. For instance, it still has to award contract for 16 combat utility helicopters one year after an earlier deal with Canada for Bell 412 was cancelled by President Rodrigo Duterte, who was angered by restrictions imposed by Ottawa.
The Philippines must have a corruption-free procurement process, allowing technical experts to choose the best equipment based on the armed services’ specifications and mission requirements and increasing the budget allocated for capability upgrade.
It will help a lot if defense spending could be raised to 1.5 or 2% of GDP – from the current almost one percent – to hasten and strengthen the building of a modest credible defense. – Rappler.com
A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’ war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.