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MANILA - Amid rising tensions with China over the disputed Spratly Islands, the head of the Philippine military raises the following stark reminder: Since 2005 the Philippines has had no jet fighters to protect the country’s airspace.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr., in an interview with the Philippines News Agency, confirmed the predicament of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) - that it has had no supersonic jet fighter interceptors since its F-5 jets were phased out six years ago as obsolete.
“Our pilots have no more fighter jets to scramble, unlike before,” Oban, himself a jet pilot, said.
Oban said that the PAF at present has no capability to intercept hostile planes that may intrude into Philippine skies. He added that the PAF also needs to modernize its radar system.
The PAF used to be the No. 1 air force in Southeast Asia after World War II, the AFP chief said, until in the late 1960s it started lagging behind its neighbors in the procurement of new fighter jets.
In the early 1950s, the PAF acquired two squadrons of Sabre jets, the top of the line jet fighters at that time. This was complemented by a squadron of propeller-driven Mustang planes.
In 1965, the Philippines was one of the first countries in the world to acquire from the United States 30 F-5 Freedom fighter jets. In 1979 the country purchased an additonal 25 Crusader jet aircraft also from the U.S.
But over the years, the PAF has found itself depleted of fighter planes.
The last F5 was flown in 2005 before it was decommissioned.
“At present we don’t have any fighter jets,” Oban told the PNA.
Earlier this month, InterAksyon.com also ran an exclusive interview with Philippine Navy Rear Admiral Alex Pama, where it was pointed out how the country's navy, too, was basically making do with meager resources, even in the face of brewing crises - and constant tension - in the South China Sea. (Owing to new tensions with China, the Philippines now refers to the body of water as the "West Philippine Sea".)
Oban noted that the 1995 AFP Modernization Plan was passed by Congress and approved by then President Fidel V. Ramos for the AFP to acquire new planes and armaments. But the 1997 Asian financial crisis dampened the modernization program as the U.S. currency soared to as much as P50 to a dollar. Oban said that when the modernization program was first being drafted, the exchange rate was only one U.S. dollar to P20.
“In fact, we anticipated that by the time we ordered new planes, the exchange rate would be one U.S. dollar to P30, but we were wrong,” Oban added.
Still, Oban said the AFP will continue its modernization program to upgrade the AFP’s capability so it can carry its mandate to protect the sovereignty of the country.
To be delivered in November this year are combat helicopters the PAF has ordered from Poland. Also to be delivered are additional jet trainer planes.
The Philippine Navy has just acquired one Jacinto Class vessel that would boost its capability to patrol the country’s territorial waters.
Oban said that the guidance of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is to acquire multi-role fighter planes and helicopters.
He said the AFP prefers to buy brand-new jet fighters rather than second-hand.
The delivery of the aircraft will take at least three years.
When asked what type of jet fighters the Air Force would want, Oban said that is still being studied by the PAF.
There are a variety of jet fighters available in the world market such as the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18, all US-made; Kfir jet made by Israel; Tornado jet developed by Britain, Germany and Italy; and the Russian Sokhoi jet fighter, among others.
Sixteen years after the 1995 AFP Modernization Law was passed, the AFP is still struggling to upgrade its equipment, particularly the acquisition of new jet fighters and naval ships.
Oban said that another factor that delayed the modernization plan was the resurgence of insurgency in the late 1990s and early 2000s which the AFP had to shift gear, giving priority to domestic problem and leaving behind the needs for external security.