Manila looks at candidates for wholesale air force upgrade

The Philippines government is again studying options for a desperately needed modernisation of the country's air force, following the recent grounding of its frontline fighter fleet.

Meanwhile, a longstanding plan to introduce Lockheed Martin C-130s in the maritime patrol role has still not been approved, threatening a four aircraft deal.

Only eight of the air force's 14 ageing Northrop Grumman F-5A fighters are airworthy and have been grounded pending the investigation into a crash last month. The aircraft were delivered in the mid-1960s and some officials blame the accident on metal fatigue, although the air force insists its F-5s have been properly maintained.

Air force chief Benjamin Defensor says offers from five manufacturers are being evaluated - Lockheed Martin F-16, Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Mirage 2000, and Saab/BAE Gripen. Defensor says taking secondhand Kfir fighters from Israel Aircraft Industries, or RSK MiG-29s or Sukhoi Su-27s from Russia, are also options.

A key stumbling block remains funding, although the air force hopes to use some of the 10 billion pesos ($200 million) earmarked for defence upgrades this year to make down-payments. Two 12 aircraft squadrons are required.

The US government has meanwhile offered a squadron of ex-US Air National Guard F-16A/Bs, with a two-year technical support package.

The air force has considered an F-5 upgrade or acquiring additional secondhand aircraft, possibly from Taiwan. But industry sources say Manila would want to source the Taiwanese aircraft via a third country - possibly the USA - to avoid upsetting China.

An air force deal agreed over a year ago to acquire four C-130Ks traded-in by the UK Royal Air Force to Lockheed Martin has still not been approved by the Philippines government.

If the contract is signed, the C-130s will receive a pair of "roll-on/roll-off" Lockheed Martin-supplied mission systems for long-range patrol/surveillance missions. Lockheed Martin will invest in a C-130 maintenance centre being set up by Asian Aerospace.

Source: Flight International