The Filipino air force is a joke. The last jet fighters they had were the old F-5 Freedom Fighters that they retired in 2005. Even their Defense Secretary teased, “Our Air Force… [is]… all air without force.”
China lays claim to much of the South China Sea (particularly the Spratly Islands) and have routinely violated the Philippines’ territorial claims with both military aircraft and ships. As of now, the Filipinos have nothing to send in response, other than unintimidating prop planes, patrol boats and antiquated destroyers. Although the Filipinos do not officially acknowledge they are seeking weapons to counter Chinese incursions, they are essentially trying to obtain specific weapons to counter Chinese incursions.
Yesterday, the Philippines and Korea signed a contract to provide 12 F/A-50 light fighter-bombers, within 38 months, for about $420 million. As both a war capable plane and a trainer is it the be all and end all for what the Philippines needs to counter China? No. But, the Philippines is not a rich country and cannot afford to buy and maintain more capable planes such as Saab’s Gripen, the F-16C (Block 40 or better), the Sukhoi Su-27, etc. Plus, they are nine years out of practice in flying jet fighters and probably couldn’t use top-of-the line planes to their fullest capabilities because they have no training infrastructure. The Filipinos themselves acknowledge that the F/A-50 was the best they can do for now.
(Photo credit: Oman Daily Observer)
Predictably, the Chinese were not happy with this news. Rumor has it (from the Chosun Ilbo via the Yomiuri Shimbun) that a “Chinese official” made a request to the Park administration to not sell the jets, which Korea reportedly ignored.
So, what could the Chinese hypothetically send against Filipino F/A-50s? It would have to have long range, so probably Sukhoi Su-27s or Sukhoi Su-30MKK. Head to head does an F/A-50 have a snowball’s chance in hell against an Su-30MMK? Most likely not. An Su-30 is faster, more powerful, has advanced beyond visual range (“BVR”) missiles and sensor driven helmet mounted displays that control “off-boresight” weapons. However, the F/A-50 has something that may save it: Link-16. The Philippines are buying long range ground based radars that they will station near the Spratlys. If linked with the F/A-50s then they can see Chinese planes before Chinese planes can see them, thus giving the F/A-50s a fighting chance, particularly if they are armed with their own BVR missiles.
Lastly, as I had mentioned before, the procurement pattern for the T-50 family of jets appears to belie the fact that it was originally designed as a trainer. The customers (namely Iraq and the Philippines) want this supposed “trainer” to fight. As a cheap jet fighter in a “stop gap” role it may not be all that bad. Smaller and poorer nations don’t have a lot of choices. Back in the Cold War the Soviets and the Americans sold their poorer client states cheap and easy to maintain Mig-21 Fishbeds and F-5 Freedom Fighters. America and Russia don’t offer these planes (or modern facsimiles) anymore so there is a market need. At the end of the day the T-50 family might be a better 21st century F-5 than a 21st century version of a T-38.