Military: PHL airspace remains unprotected for the past 8 years for lack of jet fighters

April 26, 2012 9:21 pm 

By Ben Cal

MANILA, April 26 — The long-overdue completion of the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has not enabled the Philippine Air Force (AFP) to protect the country's airspace and an antiquated navy unable to secure the nation's vast territorial waters for the past eight years.

Military officials interviewed by the Philippines News Agency expressed dismay over the predicament of the AFP with virtually no external defense to speak of at present, a far cry from the days of old when the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the Philippine Navy (PN) were second to none in Asia, except Japan at the end of World War II until the 1970s.

At present, Philippine airspace is vulnerable to intrusion as the Air Force, the nation’s first line of defense, has no fighter jets in its arsenal to intercept hostile aircraft entering into the country's airspace after the PAF decommissioned its aging F-5 interceptors in 2005.

The PAF has to contend with its few remaining S-211 jet trainers as “substitute interceptors” which cannot be compared to the supersonic fighter planes such as the F-22 “Raptor” F-14 Phantom; F-15 “Eagle”; F-16 “Falcon”; F-18 “Hornet”; Mig-29 Tornado GR4; Mirage 2000 Sokhoi S-37, and the F-21 Kfir.

The failure of the AFP to modernize the Air Force and Navy is now being felt with the intrusion of Chinese fishing vessels at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal which is within the Philippines’ territorial waters but claimed by the Chinese as theirs.

“If we had a credible military, this could not happen,” military officials said in unison when asked by this writer.

Despite Congress passing the 1995 AFP Modernization Law of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) allocating P331 billion spread in 15 years, the PAF is still wanting of new jet fighters to replace the decommissioned F-5s.

The AFP, particularly the Air Force, has been pushing since the mid-1980s to acquire the F-16 jet fighters or the Mirage 2000 as replacement of the F-5s but this has remained an elusive dream to date.

From the 1950s until early 1970s, the PAF was a force to reckon with, second to none in Southeast Asia in terms of military muscle.

Today, the AFP found itself dismally in the lowest echelon among neighboring Asian nations.

At the height of its glory days, the AFP had more than 50 jet fighter interceptors –- the F-5A/B and F-8 Crusaders, not to mention the 140 “Huey” helicopters, 35 attack helicopters, 30 trainer jets, 12 C-130 “Hercules” planes, an array of other aircraft in the inventory of the Philippine Air Force (PAF).

The Philippine Navy was equally replete with warships and gunboats acquired from the United States at the end of the Pacific War. Likewise, the Philippine Army also got modern tanks and armored vehicles.

Over the years, however, wear and tear had crept in that these armaments had become obsolete.

Today, the Navy is badly in bad shape as it tries to maintain ageing warships some of which are more than 50 years old.

Worse, the Navy has no missile gunboats compared to other neighboring countries which have acquired such sophisticated armament.

Yet, the Navy has to patrol the Philippines' vast coastlines which are twice as long as that of the United States. With the shortage of ships, the Navy cannot do it as it is just impossible.

The Navy has been clamoring for new ships to replace its decommissioned floating assets.

The Department of National Defense (DND) and the AFP had anticipated that reality that they made a blueprint to modernize the military as early as 1980. The DND and AFP recommended for the acquisition of new defense equipment, particularly new jet fighters and warships.

In 1989, PAF got two squadrons of S-211 jet trainers from Italy, followed by a squadron of MD500/520 attack helicopters bought from the U.S., all brand-new.

At that time, the Air Force reiterated its recommendation to Congress to acquire a squadron of F-16 jet fighter-interceptors or similar aircraft to replace the ageing F-5A/B jet acquired in 1965. But the government did not give priority for the acquisition of new fighter-jet interceptors due to lack of funds.

The Philippines depended heavily on the United States to supply the AFP with military hardware since World War II was over.

In exchange for that, the Americans had a string of military bases in the Philippines such as Clark Air Base in Pampanga where the 13th U.S. Air Force was based, and Subic Naval Base in Zambales, the biggest U.S. military installation in the world outside the United States.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. agreed to pay rentals for the use of its military bases in the Philippines in addition to supplying the AFP of military hardware totaling US$ 500 million annually until 1991 when the Philippines-U.S. Military Bases Agreement (MBA) was abrogated.

As a consequence, the Americans dismantled its military installations in the country.

In the meantime, the AFP modernization program suffered a setback due to lack of funds.

With this predicament, the modernization program was again shelved indefinitely. The Air Force and Navy suffered the brunt. Both have to contend with ageing jet-fighters and warships with no replacement to date.

Former Air Force chief retired Lt. Gen. Loven Abadia recalled that during the heydays of the AFP, pilots of the PAF's F-5 jets, armed with sidewinder air-to-air missiles and 20mm machine guns, were up in the air immediately to challenge any aircraft entering the country’s airspace without permission.

That is not the case today because the Air Force has no supersonic jet fighter-interceptors in its arsenal.

The Navy was also quick to respond to intercept foreign vessels that entered the country’s territorial waters.

At present, the Navy has no capability to patrol the country’s 36,000 nautical miles of territorial waters, particularly the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratly chain of islands in the West Philippine Sea where an estimated US$ 26.3 trillion of hydrocarbon deposits are still untapped.

In 1995, Congress passed Republic Act No. 7898 known as the AFP Modernization Law allocating P331 billion for the military to acquire new assets, especially for the country’s territorial defense.

Then President Fidel V. Ramos, a former defense secretary and AFP chief of staff, signed R.A. 7898 into law the same year. Implementation of the modernization program was spread over 15 years ending in 2011.

Section 3 of the said law states the AFP modernization program shall be implemented in accordance with the following objectives:

* To develop its capability to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and to secure the national territory from all forms of intrusion and encroachment;

* To develop its capability to assist civilian agencies in the preservation of the national patrimony, including the country's living and non-living marine, submarine, mineral, forest and other natural resources located within its territory and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ);

* To enhance its capability to fulfill its mandate to protect the Filipino people not only from armed threats but from the ill-effects of life-threatening and destructive consequences of natural and man-made disasters and calamities, including typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, major accidents in far-flung or inaccessible terrain or at sea and from all forms of ecological damage;

* To improve its capability to assist other agencies in the enforcement of domestic and foreign policies as well as international covenants against piracy, white slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, hijacking of aircraft and seacraft and the transport of toxic and other ecologically-harmful substances taking place in or through Philippine territory;

* To enhance its capability to assist the Philippine National Police in law enforcement and internal security operations;

* To enhance its capability to fulfill the country's international commitments; and

* To develop its capability to support national development.

The modernization program shall also “develop the AFP into a compact, efficient, responsive and modern with the capability to engage in conventional and/or unconventional warfare, disaster relief and rescue operations, and contribute to economic development and other nontraditional military roles.”

But 16 years after the AFP Modernization Program was signed into law, the AFP has barely taken off, if at all.

Before the ambitious program could take off, the 1997 Asian economic crisis erupted that greatly affected the modernization plan. To date only P30 billion had been released out of the total P331 billion.

As a consequence, the AFP was short of funds as only small items can be bought of the measly amount, considering the high cost of military hardware.

The AFP will just make do of whatever amount the Department of Budget (DBM) would release.

“The P30-billion could not even buy one jet fighter which costs US$ 30 to US$ 35 million, bare, meaning the armaments and other avionics are not included,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Villerete, commanding general of the 3rd Air Division based in Zamboanga City.

“The total cost of one jet interceptor complete with the basic weapons is US$ 50 million,” Villarete added.

It’s a shocking reality the AFP has to contend with.

The last batch of F-5 “Freedom Fighter” war jets made their last flight seven years ago because there were no more spare parts available in the open market.

With the present predicament, PAF pilots have no more fighter jets to scramble, unlike before when fighter jets such as the Sabre jets, F-5s and F8s were up in the air at a moment’s notice.

With no interceptors, PAF pilots no longer have to “scramble,” a term used by fighter pilots to scamper to their planes once a siren is sounded to alert them that hostile aircraft are about to intrude into the country’s airspace.

Aside from lack of fighter planes, the PAF also needs modern radar system.

The 1995 AFP Modernization Plan hit a snag following the debilitating 1997 Asian financial crisis. During its planning, the exchange rate was only one U.S. dollar to P20.

In fact, AFP planners anticipated that by the time the new planes are ordered, the exchange rate would be one U.S. dollar to P30, but that was not the case because the rate jumped to a staggering one dollar to more than P50.

Another obstacle that delayed the AFP modernization occurred in 2000 when the military had to shift its strategy from internal to external defense following the outbreak of new hostilities in southern Philippines when the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) declared an all-out war.

This prompted the AFP to shift back to internal defense to contain the MILF offensive.

Despite this long delay, the AFP will continue its modernization program to upgrade its capability so it can carry its mandate to protect the sovereignty of the country.

In February, this year, the first four of the eight utility Sokol combat helicopters the PAF has ordered from Poland arrived. The remaining four will be delivered in November, according to Lt. Col. Mike Okol, PAF spokesman.

On the other hand, the Philippine Navy has just acquired one Jacinto Class vessel that would boost its capability to patrol the country’s territorial waters.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has also acquired a cutter that would help patrol the country’s sea borders.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said recently that the PAF will acquire multi-role fighter planes and helicopters.

The announcement recently by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that the government will allocate P40 billion for the AFP modernization program over the next five years starting in 2012 is a welcome development.

President Benigno S. Aquino III said the allocation of additional funds would help boost the military’s defense capability.

“We will have to face acquisition of equipment. Definitely, the P40 billion is just really for immediate requirements. We’ll be coming up with a list of priority acquisition, and this has to be driven by strategy,” the President said recently.

The amount is close to the P42.13 billion the AFP has asked Congress for the modernization of the military for the next five years with the Navy getting the biggest allocation amounting to P14.49 billion; followed by the Air Force, P14.36 billion, and the Philippine Army, P11.66 billion.

The amount of P1.62 billion is for AFP General Headquarters and support units for the same period.

The modernization program for the Army will include the purchase of new equipment for 12 battalions and three new mechanized battalions.

The P42-billion modernization program will be for the purchase of 110 units of infantry fighting vehicles, 4,464 units of night fighting system, 8,103 units of assault rifles, 8,103 units of force protection equipment, grenade launchers, trucks, and radios for the Army.

The Air Force’s shopping lists are four units of combat helicopters, four units of surface attack aircraft and lead-in fighter trainers, six units of close air support aircraft, one long-range patrol aircraft and one air surveillance radar.

The Navy is planning to acquire two offshore patrol vessels, a strategic sealift vessel, a command and control communication system, two units of multi-purpose helicopters, a bases support system, a Coast Guard watch system and an anti-bunker and tank system.

The problem, however, is that acquiring new planes and naval vessels will take at least three years.

Will the long overdue AFP modernization program materialize this time, or will it remain as a blueprint? (PNA) DCT/scs/RBC/mec

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