CLARK AIR BASE (Philippines) • The Philippines yesterday took delivery of two South Korean-made FA-50 aircraft, marking the country's return to supersonic fighter jet status after almost a decade, amid growing tensions with China.
The two aircraft, the first of an order of 12, signal a new readiness by Manila to assert itself militarily.
The two fighters, flown from Seoul by South Korean pilots, were met in Philippine airspace by two S211 jets, which escorted them to the former US air base of Clark, where they were received by Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
"We're glad. We are finally back to the supersonic age," he said as he inspected the "Golden Eagle" jets.
Mr Gazmin has said the aircraft could serve as both trainers and fighters, and that among the areas they would be posted to will be the western island of Palawan, the country's closest point to the South China Sea, where the Philippines has a territorial dispute with China.
China claims most of the South China Sea, even up to the coastline of its neighbours. Other countries have conflicting claims and the Philippines has been the most vocal in opposing China despite its overwhelming military superiority.
The cash-strapped Philippines, which is also battling internal communist and Muslim insurgencies, has long neglected external defence, relying on ageing ships and aircraft to patrol the disputed waters.
It retired the last of its supersonic jets, US-made F-5 Freedom Fighters, in 2005 due to their age and has since relied on propeller-driven planes and the Italian-made S211.
The S211s are intended for training new pilots and are not capable of supersonic flight. But the military has been forced to use them for other roles such as patrolling territory and conducting bombing missions on insurgents.
However, as the economy improved, President Benigno Aquino has been upgrading the military. After the delivery of the two South Korean jets, Defence Undersecretary Fernando Manalo said Mr Aquino has approved the purchase of 44 billion pesos (S$1.3 billion) worth of military equipment to help boost maritime security capability.
Mr Aquino authorised the multi- year contract to purchase two frigates, eight amphibious assault vehicles, three anti-submarine helicopters, two long-range patrol aircraft, three aerial radars, munitions for the fighters and close support planes, Mr Manalo told reporters.
"With these aircraft, our capability to guard maritime borders will be enhanced," an air force general told Reuters, declining to be identified.
"Our response time will be quicker but we would need radar and communications to fully integrate our air defence systems."
The Philippines has started a five-year, 83-billion peso modernisation programme to improve its ability to defend its maritime borders against the creeping expansion of China in the South China Sea.
China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratly islands and is building military facilities, including airfields, ports and lighthouses.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS