AN AIRFORCE is rarely satisfied with its allotted budget, and many military air wings have fine-tuned the art of pleading poverty into a way of lobbying for extra cash. The Philippine Air Force, however, has been forced to endure more hardships than most. Years of financial neglect have been compounded by the ravages of armed insurrections, volcanic eruptions burying aircraft tail deep in ash, and the sudden withdrawal and loss of US Air Force support.

In 1996, the country finally woke up to the military's rapidly deteriorating state of readiness, with the appearance of a Chinese encampment in an area of the South China Sea Spratly Islands, previously claimed by the Philippines. Barring a handful of badly cracked vintage Northrop F-5A/Bs, there was little of substance in the Philippines' armoury to call upon to back up Manila's vocal protests.

Spurred on by China's de facto annexation of the appropriately named Mischief Reef, the Philippine Congress approved a 15-year 164.5 billion pesos ($6.24 billion) defence-modernisation budget at the end of 1996. The air force has been given a respectable 38% slice of the pie and the green light to spend up to 50 billion pesos on new equipment in the first five years of the plan.

Commanding General William Hotchkiss states: "The intent is to bring back some air-defence credibility that we once had in the past, so that we can detect and identify intrusions into air space and sea areas. We're looking at a squadron of multi-role fighters and some radar equipment to fill in the gaps that we have, as well as strengthening our command and control network and some maritime-patrol aircraft, roughly in that order."

The air force expects to issue requests for proposals (RFPs) shortly for fighters and radars, once its circular of requirements is approved by the Philippine defence secretary. In an effort to speed up the procurement process, the air force had already begun an informal evaluation of competing systems, even before the defence-modernisation budget was passed.

As a result, the air force is aware of what is available and plans to issue RFPs to a pre-selected number of potential suppliers only. "We sent some teams abroad to look at the market and have already made some appraisals," reveals Hotchkiss. "Once we get our circular of requirements approved, we'll be sending out one team to look at, say, five to seven aircraft and do a one-time evaluation."

Manufacturers in turn have wasted no time in beating a path to Manila to tout their wares. The air force has been briefed on at least nine different fighter types to date, including the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter EF2000. In the final analysis though, the competition is likely to come down to a choice between the Dassault Mirage 2000-5, Israel Aircraft industries Kfir 2000, Lockheed Martin F-16, MiG MAPO MiG-29 and McDonnell Douglas F-18 (Flight International, 19-25 February, P16).

A major factor in the Philippine decision-making process will be cost, and reconciling that with the funds available. According to air-force officials, offers have varied between as little as $200 million and as much as $600 million. The issue is whether to buy a new-build fighter type, such as F-18C/Ds or F-16C/Ds, or to save some money for other projects by settling for upgraded secondhand F-16A/Bs or Kfirs.

Another factor to decide upon opens up the age-old debate between those in the air force who favour a twin-engined aircraft, such as the MiG-29, and the school of thought which prefers a simpler single-engine solution. Hotchkiss says simply the requirement is for "-an aircraft that can perform both the air-to-air and air-to-surface roles, without much change in its configuration". He adds that, while the technical evaluation and decision will be left to the air force, the final say rests with the general headquarters and, ultimately, the Secretary of National Defence.

The air force had originally intended to buy up to 18 fighters in the first five years and a second squadron of 18 aircraft within the full 15-year plan. This has now been cut to two 12-aircraft acquisitions in the first and second five-year periods, as a result of Congress' refusal to authorise an additional 167 billion pesos in modernisation funding until there is further improvement in the economy.

Hotchkiss explains: "In the programme that was cut, we were looking at two squadrons of about 36 multi-role fighters. We're now looking at perhaps 24 aircraft. We did not cut 36 in half, but took from other areas. We re-prioritised less important items and put them somewhere else so we could get more fighters."

Among the items put on the back burner is a series of planned improvements to some of the air force's eight main air bases and 12 supporting air stations, which are used as deployment staging points. At the same time, the Government has issued guidelines for the three services to rationalise and make more efficient and economical use of common user facilities.

The air force's other major priority is the acquisition of up to six new air-defence-radar systems. As with the fighter programme, considerable progress has already been made following an earlier round of radar bidding which was subsequently annulled. It is anticipated that, once a new circular of requirements is approved, the original six tenderers will be asked to submit revised bids.

The earlier deal had called for the supply of six 3-D radars, an operations centre and communication systems, which could also be linked with the civil Air Transportation Office to provide overflight billing data. Three of the radars are to be positioned at Mount Salakot on Palawan Island, Gozar on Lubang Island and at Laoag in northern Luzon, to cover approaches from over the South China Sea. Two more will be located close to Zamboanga and Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao.

Manufacturers are competing for the $150-200 million contract with a mixed offering of fixed and portable radars. GEC-Marconi is expected to re-bid with its Martello system; Alenia is proposing the RAT-31-SL/E; Lockheed Martin the (E)1 and transportable (E)1T versions of its FPS-117; Northrop Grumman the mobile TPS-70 and larger dual-use civil/military FPS-130; and Thomson-CSF the TRS 22XX.


Maritime Patrol aircraft

The air force's next priorities are the acquisition of six long-range maritime-patrol aircraft to enforce the Philippines' 370km (200nm) economic-exclusion zone, and three new search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopters. The air force had wanted a total of 12 SAR machines, but, until the second round of modernisation funding is forthcoming, it will have to continue to rely on a mixed fleet of converted Sikorsky S-76s, Bell UH-1Hs and four recently acquired Bell 412 VIP transports for the SAR role.

Other longer-term requirements over the next ten years include up to 12 surface-attack aircraft, an airborne-early-warning capability, an electronic-warfare/intelligence-gathering system, three heavylift helicopters, two light-transport aircraft and a ground point-defence system. The attack aircraft are likely to double up as lead-in fighter trainers (Flight International, 5 - 11 March, P18).

"We need something in the interim," suggests Hotchkiss. "We still have the F-5s and feel that we can tackle the lead-in trainer issue with that aircraft. We want to make sure that the jump from what we have to the new fighters is not too great."

According to Hotchkiss, as more funds become available, the air force will need a replacement for the F-5s and its Siai Marchetti S211 trainer/light-attack aircraft. "It can be the same platform as for a surface-attack aircraft and our lead-in trainer," he adds.

Following the recent acquisition of six surplus F-5A/Bs from Jordan, South Korea and Taiwan, the air force now has ten aircraft, including two tandem-seat Bs. It hopes to further boost this number to between 18 and 24 aircraft and undertake a limited structural and avionics life extension. With only $36 million in the F-5 upgrade pot however, the service is banking on counter-trade for financing.

Other interim measures under way include long-overdue depot-level overhaul and repairs to four Fokker F27s, eight Lockheed Martin C-130B/Hs and two L-100 turboprop transports, as well as its fleet of UH-1H and S-76 helicopters. The air force is seeking to acquire additional C-130s from surplus USAF stocks and has its eye on Philippine Airlines' Fokker 50s should some of them become available.

Hand-in-hand with the purchase of new equipment is a planned re-organisation of the air force's structure over the next three years to produce a "compact, responsive and effective force". The service is now geographically organised into three air divisions and one reservist support command, consisting of 16 tactical and support wings, and 13 wide support units. It is planned that the 15,000-strong force will be reformed around five functional air commands and ten service-support units.

Hotchkiss explains: "We're reducing and simplifying reporting channels. Whereas I now have to deal with all wing commanders, in the modernised organisation I will have to deal with only the air-defence, tactical-operations, air-logistics and training commanders. Decisions are expected to be made at a lower level, simplifying it for both the commanding general and lower commanders, and giving them the opportunity to do whatever needs to be done."


Keeping the pilots

At the same time, measures are being taken to try to stem the outflow of air force pilots to better-paid jobs with commercial airlines. While the service plays down the extent of losses, claiming that it is still able to perform its basic missions, a pro-active effort is being made to combat the problem by increasing pilot salaries, providing car loans and improving housing conditions on and off bases

The modernisation budget, however, is viewed by many as the single most important incentive for retaining personnel within the air force. "For me the biggest morale booster is the idea that we'll be getting new aircraft. The primary motivating factor that will make civilians enter the air force is the opportunity to be able to fly the latest fighter and transport aircraft," concludes Hotchkiss.

Source: Flight International