President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has given the green light for the Philippines to improve the Philippine Air Force and acquire new fighter jets to boost its defense system. This move is a part of the country’s military modernization efforts. The Air Force is now focused more than ever on addressing weaknesses in defense capabilities amidst ongoing tensions in the South China Sea with China.

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A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 13th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Wing, participates in a bilateral air defense training mission during exercise Balikatan 22 at Basa Air Base, Philippines, April 1, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Steve Cushman / DVIDS)

Military Chief General Romeo Brawner has emphasized that the current Philippine fleet of FA-50 aircraft fighters made in South Korea is insufficient for protecting the nation.

The Philippines is now considering purchasing “bigger, faster, and more lethal” aircraft, such as the American-made F-16 and Swedish JAS-39. The exact number of additional jets to be added to the fleet is still being decided.

Upgrading Air Power

According to experts, this upgrade is a crucial step to boost the country’s capability to defend its territorial waters in the flourishing South China Sea. Security Analyst Rej Torrecampo pointed out the need for not just maritime patrol vessels but also air assets to effectively project power beyond the country’s 12 nautical mile territory and its exclusive economic zone covering 200 nautical miles.

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The 644th Combat Communication Squadron poses for a group photo with Philippine Air Force 1st Lt. John Mangaoang, assistant director, after completing a subject matter expert event during Cope Thunder 24-1 at Basa Air Base, Philippines, Apr. 12, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Darnell T. Cannady) / DVIDS)

The West Philippine Sea is part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ EEZ. In recent months, Filipino and Chinese ships have engaged in several confrontations in these disputed waters. A notable incident occurred on June 17, when a Philippine navy member lost a thumb during a clash while the Filipinos were resupplying troops at the Second Thomas Shoal.

Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation President Chester Cabalza suggested that the government invest in jets. The new fleet must be cost-effective, well-equipped, and open to reverse engineering. Countries like the US, Sweden, and South Korea are bidding for state-of-the-art fighter planes. Manila also aims to diversify its fleet to democratize the military air force market.

Enhancing National Defense

In May, the Swedish embassy reported that the Philippines had shown great interest in Swedish systems. This includes command systems, fighter jets, and airborne early-warning aircraft.

President Marcos, addressing the Air Force at Pampanga’s Cesar Basa Airbase, assured that his leadership is focused on enhancing the nation’s defense capabilities.

They will accomplish this by acquiring additional air assets and state-of-the-art radar systems and bolstering cyberwarfare communications.

Earlier this year, President Marcos approved a $35 billion military modernization scheme. The government allocated a significant portion of this funding to the Air Force and Navy. House Speaker Martin Romualdez has promised legislative support to achieve this program.

International Development and Security Cooperation Vice President Joshua Espeña noted that the Air Force is the weakest department in the Philippine military.

He stressed the need for at least a dozen squadrons of multirole jets to protect the archipelago’s airspace effectively. Despite recent additions of fixed and rotary wings, drones, and air defense systems, the Air Force still relies heavily on its ground and naval counterparts for joint operations in a multidomain war situation.

Espeña highlighted that the new fleet of fighter planes would significantly bolster the air force, which has primarily supported the army’s internal security operations. However, the Air Force faces substantial challenges, including intercepting drone swarms and countering China’s hypersonic missiles.

The Philippines’ decision to upgrade its air force reflects a strategic move to strengthen national defense. As the country modernizes its military, these new fighter jets will play a vital role in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity.


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