The Philippines is modernizing its military amid heightened South China Sea tensions and territorial disputes with China. As part of this modernization drive, the country seeks multi-role fighters for its air force.
On June 13, Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas Sr., Commander of the Philippine Air Force (PAF), announced that the outgoing President Rodrigo R Duterte had approved the Multirole Fighter (MRF) project, albeit without funding for the acquisition.
Now, in a new development under the government of the new President Bongbong Marcos, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) announced that it had shortlisted the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen in its multi-role fighter jet (MRF) tender, the Philippines News Agency (PNA) reported.
“(The) two last contenders (for the PAF MRF project are the) F-16V Block 50/52 Variant and the JAS-39 Gripen C/D+ Version,” PAF spokesperson Col. Maynard Mariano said. “For the MRF, the project is approved with the issued Acquisition Memorandum Decision, the government will still find a way to fund the said project,” he added.
However, this announcement led to some media organizations and digital portals concocting that the PAF had eliminated India’s indigenously developed LCA Tejas. It is an amusing assessment as the LCA Tejas was never competing for the PAF tender. There has been no official recognition of Tejas’ participation by either country.
Phillippines aims to purchase 12 multi-role fighter aircraft for air defense and interception. The aircraft’s ability to interface with current radar systems with a range of 250 nautical miles is one of the program’s basic requirements.
In 2019, Delfin Lorenzana, the secretary of national defense for the Philippines, stated that the Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D and the Lockheed Martin F-16 were being evaluated by the Philippines Air Force (PAF) for the program. Currently, the Philippines Air Force operates the FA-5O fighters acquired from South Korea.
“Several nations have shown interest in submitting bids” for the program, PAF Chief Lieutenant General Connor Anthony Canlas Sr. told the government-run Philippine News Agency. However, the official has not referenced India’s LCA Tejas on any occasion.
It is pertinent to mention that the Indian Light Combat Aircraft is looking to debut in the international market and has emerged as a top contender in the Malaysian contract.
Building On The BrahMos Hype?
Some media reports had earlier reported that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) involving the purchase of different Indian-made aircraft, including fighter planes and helicopters, was signed in May 2022 between India’s HAL and the Philippine Aerospace Development Corporation (PADC).
According to these reports, the procurement of the LCA Tejas, the LCH attack helicopter, the Dhruv and LUH utility helicopters, and others had been discussed between the two sides at the time of signing the MoU. However, EurAsian Times could not verify these claims independently.
At the time, some reports stated that the HAL Tejas Mk1A variant would cost $42 million, allowing the Philippines to procure 12 aircraft at half the price quoted by Lockheed Martin and Saab.
The American and Swedish fighter jets the PAF has shortlisted are expensive compared to the Indian indigenous jets. Two experts from the International Institute for Strategic Studies had told Defense News that the Philippines’ economy saw a 9.5% decline in the gross domestic product in 2020. Yet, the defense budget was maintained at 2019 levels.
EurAsian Times spoke to Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda. She said: “I think the HAL Tejas/Tejas Mk1A will have strong export prospects in any region where local air forces have limited modernization plans and can only make small acquisitions for light combat aircraft.
That being said, New Delhi hasn’t moved quickly enough in Manila to lay the groundwork for a deal–winning over the national leadership and defense ministry–and the Philippine Air Force, after years of careful assessment, has settled on a face-off between the F-16C/D and the Jas-39 Gripen.”
The speculations about LCA Tejas being pitched to the Philippines were made after the export contract of $375 million for the BrahMos anti-ship missiles signed between the two countries. The deal was inked by Delfin N Lorenzana, Defense Secretary of the Philippines, and Atul Dinkar Rane, Director General of BrahMos Aerospace.
According to government officials, the Philippines hosted a send-off ceremony in June for its first group of military personnel who would be trained on the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile systems in India. The deal marked the debut export of India’s supersonic cruise missile, the finest in its inventory.
India has also been eyeing the debut export for LCA Tejas aircraft that hasn’t been able to take off yet. Earlier in February 2022, it performed at the Singapore Air Show to woo the Southeast Asian market. More recent reports indicate that HAL is looking at the middle-east region to make its first export.
The speculations in Indian and foreign media regarding HAL pitching the aircraft to Manila could most precisely be the result of this eagerness on India’s part.
However, Aerospace and Defense Analyst Girish Linganna told EurAsian Times: “Once our Airforce uses Tejas, and the world sees that the fighter jet is at par and we are lucky enough to use Tejas in combat – then we can think of exporting if our manufacturing improves by then. That’s a long 15–20 years away.
Even if Tejas performs as well – nobody with money will buy Tejas simply because – It is untested and comes from a country that still imports a lot of defense equipment and has a tiny export-oriented defense industry.”
US & Swedish Jets In Break-Neck Competition
A decade of delayed upgrading its old defense capabilities has left the Philippines struggling to catch up.
The situation is further complicated by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China asserts sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands inside its self-declared “nine-dash line” despite full or partial opposition from the Philippines Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
In June, the US State Department approved a potential deal for 12 F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft for up to $2.43 billion in foreign military sales.
Ten single-seat F-16C and two dual-seat F-16D fighters are equipped with active electronically scanned array radars, joint helmet-mounted cueing systems, AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles, and targeting pods reportedly included in the package for the Philippines.
The Philippines news agency stated that the F-16V is the newest and most technologically advanced F-16 currently in use and is regarded as the best fourth-generation MRF for combat experience. It is outfitted with cutting-edge air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry and sophisticated radar systems that improve detection and tracking capabilities.
In contrast, the JAS-39 “Gripen” C/D is regarded as the world’s most dependable “swing-role combat aircraft” in the meantime. The “D” variant is a two-seater design, whereas the “C” version is a single-seater.
The Swedish-built fighter can conduct dispersed operations from narrow, unpaved routes with minimum ground personnel and equipment. Additionally, it has advanced radar, sensors, and weapons.
According to Miguel Miranda, “the model preferred by the PAF the ultimate choice is reliant on the budget assigned to the branch. The F-16C/D has a huge global supply chain and is combat proven. But the Gripen is a more sophisticated model.
There’s a risk of perceptions, too, as the Marcos administration is committed to a friendly relationship with China. Military technology acquisitions shouldn’t be too flagrant lest it earns Beijing’s ire. It’s a pathetic approach to foreign policy, in my opinion.”
It is also pertinent to mention that both China and the US are trying to court Manila at a time when the faultlines in the region have become very stark. If the Philippines buys the F-16, it would be a diplomatic win for the United States.
The PAF’s current fleet of 12 Mach 1.5-capable FA-50PH aircraft, which it purchased from 2015 to 2017 as its first supersonic aircraft following the decommissioning of its Northrop F-5 “Tiger” jet fighters in 2005, is anticipated to be supplemented by these projected MRFs.