An FA-50. Source: Wikimedia
Manila has reinforced its naval security by buying its first fighter jets in more than 10 years as its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea becomes increasingly heated.
Two Korean-made fighter jets – the country’s first supersonic combat jets in 10 years – as the archipelago bolsters its neglected military.
On Friday, the FA-50 jets landed at Clark Freeport, a former US Air Force base north of Manila, as Philippine defence heads applauded and fire engines sprayed water as a traditional welcome salute for the planes.
The country has bought 12 FA-50s from Korea Aerospace Industries at a reported cost of £400 million. The jets are primarily trainer jets that the military has adapted for use as multi-role fighting aircraft.
The remaining planes will arrive in batches until 2017. Weapons, including bombs and rockets, will be purchased later.
“We’re glad we’re finally back to the supersonic age,” announced Defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
The Philippines has had no fighter capability since it mothballed its Vietnam War vintage F-5A/Bs in the mid-2000s. It has a few S-211 Italian trainer jets, acquired in the late 1980s.
Plans to buy at least a squadron of fighter jets and a fleet of frigates failed to get the green light due to a lack of funds.
Over the years, the military has deteriorated to become one of Asia’s weakest.
Territorial tension with China over islands in the South China Sea has escalated under President Benigno Aquino III with the Chinese seizure of a disputed shoal in 2012.
This kick-started a scramble for more ships and planes with the help of the United States, the Philippines’ long-time defence ally.
Aquino authorised his defence secretary Gazmin to enter contracts last week to acquire almost US$1 billion worth of hardware.
The list included two frigates, anti-submarine helicopters and amphibious assault vehicles and long-range patrol aircraft and radar, said defence undersecretary Fernando Manalo.
The hardware should have arrived by 2018, Manalo said.
Lieutenant Colonel Rolando Condrad Pena III, one of three Filipino pilots who received training in Korea to fly the FA-50, said the planes could be used for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
“Now that we have a supersonic aircraft, our reaction time will be faster,” Pena said.
The Philippines has already ruled out a military solution to the territorial conflicts with the extensive Chinese armed forces.
In January 2013, the Philippines brought the disputes with China to international arbitration but Beijing refused to take part and insisted on bilateral negotiations.
An international tribunal in The Hague dismissed China’s legal arguments last month, ruling that it had the authority to hear the Philippines’ claim.
The tribune has said it expected to hand down a decision next year on several issues raised by the Philippines, including the validity of China’s sweeping territorial claims.