The Philippine Air Force has been pushing hard to accomplish its goal to modernize and upgrade its capabilities in as much as it seeks to make a transition in its focus from internal security operations to territorial defense, and achieve a level of credible air deterrence against foreign aggressors. It comes as no surprise therefore that there has been much hype and optimism after the recent arrival of the first two FA-50 Golden Eagle fighter jets, which are part of the 12 FA-50s that South Korea’s “Korea Aerospace Industries” (KAI) will deliver under a P18.9-billion ($400-million) government-to-government contract signed in 2013.
Since the supersonic capability of the PAF disappeared when it was forced to retire its last operational Northrop F-5s in 2005, the arrival of the FA-50s is a much welcome development. It will indeed do much to enhance the capabilities of the PAF in patrolling and maintaining presence within the country’s airspace, especially along the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
A light combat derivative of the T-50 supersonic advanced jet trainer, the FA-50 is equipped with night vision imaging system and provides improved self-protection with the radar warning receiver and the counter measure dispenser system. It can carry a weapons load of up to 4.5 tons and can be armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground tactical missiles (AGM), GBU-38/B Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapon (SFW), Mk-82 Low Drag General Purpose (LDGP) bombs and Cluster Bomb Units (CBUs). The FA-50 is also mounted with an internal, three-barrel 20mm Gatling gun and LAU-3/A 19-tube 2.75” rocket launcher for firing Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR). Collectively, the wide range of weapon systems aboard the FA-50 allows it to counter multiple threats in today’s complex battlefield scenario.
Impressive as all these may sound, we should note that the FA-50 is primarily a trainer jet which the military converted to serve as multi-role combat aircraft. Definitely, acquisition of the FA-50s is a significant step in the modernization process, but the full complement of FA-50s won’t be enough to confront or even deter aggressors like China from bullying us because the aircraft has not been designed to engage the dedicated fighter and bomber jets of our neighbors. Of course, the FA-50 in the meantime can act as the country’s interim fighter jets and we should use these jets to train our pilots to optimize their flying and combat skills. But as a serious follow through on its acquisition, government should ask our ally the US to later supply us with a squadron or two of their second hand F-16s to beef up the platforms and weapons systems of the PAF, as well as those of the Navy and the Army.
Another point that we should not miss is that acquiring these modern jets is one thing, maintaining them is another. For this reason we come across the opinion that a multi-platformed air force is currently not suitable for us due to the fact that our maintenance experience for jet fighters is virtually non-existent at this point in time. This just similarly underscores our need to maintain technological cooperation with our allies like the US. Earlier, the US announced that it increased its military aid to the Philippines this year to $79 million to support the country in its claims over the disputed waters of the WPS. It is lamentable, however, that up until now the objectives of the modernization law which we passed in the 1990s has not yet been achieved. It is time that government should buckle up and load up available resources for an honest to goodness upgrade of our military and defense capabilities to achieve credible deterrence. Definitely, there is no price tag on our sovereignty.