Why did Philippines choose the US F-16 over JAS-39 fighter to confront China?

F-16 Block 70/72
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The Philippine fighter jet expert explained why Philippine Air Force chose the American F-16 over the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen to confront China.

Philippine Air Force Modernization 

With the “dragon” on the doorstep, the Philippines is in dire need of a strong air force, so Manila has prepared to buy a squadron of US F-16 C/D fighter jets to counter these threats from China.

However, this purchase could cost the Philippines dearly, as it will cost the Philippines $2.7 billion, more than half of its defense budget. This begs the question: Is this investment profitable?

Miguel Miranda, founder of the Philippines-based “Asian arms race in the 21st century” research fund shares some insights with EurAsian Times on the issue.

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) has been requesting to modernize their aging force since 2014. This led to the development of the Air Force Modernization Plan through “Fight plan 2028” and was officially approved in 2015. The PAF desperately needs to re-equip its forces. After 30 years of shrinking, the F-5 fighter jet in the mid-2000s was an ill-advised decision. Because since then, the PAF has no more supersonic fighters. Instead, it is all propeller plane.

As a warm-up, dozens of Korean KAI F/A-50 light fighters were purchased during President Aquino’s years in office (2010-2016) and the F/A-50s were commissioned in time for the war on terror in Marawi in 2017.

The PAF aims to “intercept and neutralize” threats to the island nation’s airspace through “fight plan 2028” which is implemented in two separate steps: “Support Process” and “Core Process”.

Dozens of Korean FA-50 light fighters entered service with the PAF following a contract in 2014. The planes were delivered in 2017 for about half a billion dollars. The FA-50s quickly entered service in the Battle of Marawi that same year, and they became active in close-range fire support against terrorists in Mindanao. The FA-50s helped the PAF carry out precision strikes against enemies hiding in buildings and highlighted the merits of using air power to support combat operations.

The battle against terror in Marawi also exposed obvious shortcomings of the Philippine air force, including the need to procure advanced attack helicopters. Interestingly, the US has now given the green light for the Philippines to buy AH-1Z or AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Philippine Army (AFP). However, there has not been any confirmation or progress yet.

In addition to fighter aircraft, “Fight Plan 2028” purchased several important aircraft in 2017 such as the Agusta Westland (AW) -109 and Bell 412 helicopters, and three C295 transport aircraft.

All these orders are part of the “core process” of the “2028 fight Plan”. The PAF also ordered six A-29 Super Tucanos turboprop attack aircraft as part of a “core process” that year.

The crash of a PAF C-130H Hercules transport plane on Jolo Island in early July 2021, resulting in 52 casualties, could stimulate the Philippines’ demand to modernize the air force through the 14-year “Plan 2028”. this year.

Search for Single-engine jet fighter

The focus on purchasing single-engine fighters with out-of-sight (BVR) capabilities has long been mooted by the PAF, but the search began only recently when the US announced it would sell 12 fighter jets. F-16C/D multirole fighter for PAF.

Explaining why the PAF chose the single-engine fighter, Miranda said: “The reason for choosing a single engine, is rooted in history. The PAF was the first air force to use the F-86 jet fighter.

It is important that in the global aviation market, single-engine fighters are affordable. I wonder if the PAF will eventually realize that they also need heavy twin-engine fighters in the future.”

When asked why the F-16 was chosen over the JAS 39 Gripen, he said: “The final decision to buy the F-16 rests with the Department of Defense. Due to the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we may have to wait months before any confirmation (or not) is announced.

Historically, the US has been the main supplier of PAF fighters, so it is not surprising that the F-16C/D aircraft was selected by the PAF.

These F-16s will be equipped with a wide range of smart weapons, with an estimated contract value of up to $2.7 billion. The sale includes the $42.2 million AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II air-to-air missile and 12 AGM-84L-1 Harpoon anti-ship missiles worth $120 million.

Harpoon anti-ship missiles, believed to be used as a deterrent against the Chinese Navy (PLAN) at sea. The F-16 procurement plan will make up a large part of the Philippines’ annual defense budget, which is only $4.26 billion.

The F-16 was the first multirole fighter of the US Air Force, they are considered the most successful fighter of the 4th generation. The US Air Force alone has more than 2,000 F-16s. in service, while another 2,500 F-16s are in service in 25 countries.

JAS 39 Gripen fighter of the Swedish Air Force
JAS 39 Gripen fighter of the Swedish Air Force

According to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the F-16 Block 70/72 incorporates major upgrades, most notably advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and new avionics; while also upgrading the fuselage structure, to extend the life of the aircraft by 50%, compared to previous production F-16s.

The software of the F-16 Block 70 uses the latest technology, completely absent from previous F-16 versions. Operability is enhanced, through an advanced data link, aiming pod, GPS navigation and Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS).

The Philippine Air Force will receive 10 F-16C Block 70/72 aircraft, 15 M61A1 Vulcan 20mm cannons, 24 AIM-120C-7/8 out-of-sight air-to-air missiles, and the AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II. In terms of ground and surface attack weapons, the PAF will receive two F-16D Block 70/72s, armed with 12 AGM-84L-1 Harpoon Block II missiles, six 500-pound Mk-82 bombs, and six bombs. 500-pound (226kg) Mk-82 training bomb.

RELIABLE WEAPON OF CHINESE DETERMINATION

Currently, the F-16 is widely used in the Asia-Pacific region (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia) and the global supply chain that supports it means that squadrons are maintained for decades.

The payload and role of the F-16 is undeniable, it can perform any mission. One particular advantage of flying the F-16 is that the PAF can train with other air forces,” Miranda said.

However, the PAF would require a diverse Air Force squadron of at least 100 fixed-wing aircraft, half of which are fighter aircraft, to act as a reliable deterrent against PLAAF.

“By 2028, the equipment of the PAF will be relatively complete. Prominent among them are the Super Heron and Hermes 900 UAVs with the ability to operate in the air for a long time, purchased from Israel, to help improve reconnaissance and capture the situation over a large sea.

Currently overcoming the problem of geography and the ability to scout nearby waters, is paramount for the Philippine Army.

“If F-16C/Ds are operational by then the PAF should be expanding its bases to accommodate another dozen fighters. All in all, by 2028 the PAF is equipped for minimum deterrence. The real game-changer is any provisions for the US Navy to deploy here again. I think this is a possibility,” he concluded.

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