Manila narrows fighter choice

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Paul Lewis/SINGAPORE

THE PHILIPPINE AIR force is expected to narrow its evaluation of competing fighter aircraft to a shortlist of two or three final contenders by October.

According to local sources, the air force is looking at new-build and upgraded secondhand fighter types. The number of aircraft initially required in the first five years varies between eight and 18, depending on unit cost.

A US Government offer of embargoed Pakistani Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs, is viewed by many observers, as the most attractive choice. Nine of the 28 F-16s built and in storage have already been offered to Indonesia for just over $9 million a unit.

Slightly cheaper, at around $7 million apiece, is the upgraded Israel Aircraft Industries Kfir 2000. Up to 18 surplus Israeli air force fighters are being offered, fitted with the Elta 2032 radar. The Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missile is also included in the package.

McDonnell Douglas is proposing a more expensive solution in the form of eight new-build F-18C/Ds. To keep costs down, the F-18 package would be similarly structured to the $390 million Foreign Military Sales deal recently signed by Thailand for eight aircraft.

Other aircraft under consideration include the Dassault Mirage 2000 and MAPO-MiG MiG-29. Earlier offers of secondhand French Dassault Mirage F-1s and Denel Cheetahs from South Africa appear to have been rejected.

Aircraft are urgently needed to replace the air force's antiquated fleet of five Northrop Grumman F-5A/Bs. The air force's aircraft numbers were recently bolstered with the "purchase" of three former South Korean air force F-5s for a nominal sum.

Funding for the new fighters is still subject to the Philippine Senate approving a supplementary P50 billion ($1.9 billion) military modernisation budget. The five-year provision has already cleared Congress, but is not expected to pass the Senate's Appropriations Committee before August.

The fighter programme, however, is one of three high-priority equipment procurements, which are being allowed to proceed in advance of the budget, with a circular of requirements already having been issued.