WASHINGTON – The Philippines needs up to four squadrons (48) of upgraded Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, more well-armed frigates and corvette-size, fast to surface combatant vessels and minesweepers and four to six mini submarines, possibly obtained from Russia, to build a credible defense force in the face of China’s increasing belligerence in the South China Sea, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) said.
This level of capability would far exceed current Philippine planning and finances and it would be in Washington’s interest to make it easier for Manila to acquire excess US fighters, frigates and other weapons system and encourage other countries such as Japan and South Korea to help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), it said in an article “Defending the Philippines: Military modernization and the challenges ahead.”
The CNAS article on Thursday written by Richard Fisher said the AFP’s modernization program was estimated to cost about $1 billion over the course of President Aquino’s six-year term – an amount that pales in comparison to China’s 2012 official military budget of more than $100 billion.
A high-level Philippine delegation led by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was in Washington this week for discussions on each other’s needs to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
A Hamilton-class frigate, now the flagship of the Philippine Navy, was turned over by the US last year and a second one is forthcoming. A third frigate is being sought.
The article lauded Aquino’s determination to build up his country’s military forces and said he has spent more than $395 million on AFP modernization since coming into office, compared with $51 million annually in the previous 15 years.
It said he is seeking to purchase a small number of F-16s supported by six to 12 Surface Attack Aircraft (SAA)/Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT) aircraft such as the subsonic Italian Aermacchi T-346 or the supersonic Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T/A-50, both of which could be modified to perform secondary combat missions.
A considerable investment in training, logistical support and basing will have to precede the aircrafts’ service entry, estimated to be in 2016, the article said.
In 2011, the Philippine Navy (PN) restored a program to acquire two multi-role vessels in the form of 5,000-to-10,000-ton Landing Platform Deck (LPD) ships capable of supporting Marine amphibious operations supplying outposts in the Spratly Islands or conducting disaster relief operations.
The PN is also looking for a land-based anti-ship cruise missile like a version of the US Boeing AMG-84 Harpoon which has a range of 120 kms and could also be used by frigates and F-16s, said Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, in his article.
“Finally, the PN would like to acquire a submarine by 2020, which would become its most ambitious and expensive program to date,” the article said.
Given the economic and political stakes in ensuring that all East Asian countries maintain unimpeded access to the sea lanes near the Philippines, both those nations and the United States now share a real interest in the success of the AFP modernization.
The timing is also fortuitous, the article said, because “the United States now has a pragmatic partner in President Aquino who has proved his intention to invest in national defense and is willing to rise above nationalist resentments from the bases era.”
The Philippines booted the Americans from Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in 1992.