Philippine and US Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of exercise KAMANDAG on Octoer 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck / US Marine Corps

MANILA – In a move with likely long-term strategic implications, the US State Department cleared a multi-billion-dollar arms package to the Philippines on June 24, which includes up to 12 state-of-the-art multirole fighter jets.

According to the proposed deal, the Pentagon is set to provide up to 10 F-16C Block 70/72 aircraft and two F-16D Block 70/72 aircraft manufactured by Lockheed Martin Co as well as long-term training and assistance with maintenance of the aircraft. 

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has also cleared the sale of 24 Raytheon Technologies AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder air-to-air missiles worth US$42.4 million and 12 Boeing AGM-84L-1 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles worth $120 million. 

Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana emphasized how his country “needs this [multirole fighters] especially that the situation in this part of the world is deteriorating.” 

If approved, the $2.43 billion deal would be the largest of its kind in the history of the two allies, marking a dramatic elevation in bilateral defense cooperation. The timing of the announcement was also crucial, coming only weeks after the Philippines decided to again suspend the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) until the end of the year. 

Should the two allies finalize the deal in the coming months, it will set the tone for bilateral relations under the next Filipino president, who will assume power by June 2022. It will also significantly enhance the Philippines’ “minimum deterrence” capability as it grapples with an ever-more assertive China in its adjacent waters. 

For years, various Filipino leaders – especially current President Rodrigo Duterte – have fretted about America’s long history of dumping Vietnam-era weaponry on its century-old ally.

Earlier this year, Duterte threatened to abrogate the VFA unless the US provided $16 billion in defense aid, highlighting large-scale advanced weaponry that Washington has handed to other countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Israel over the past decade. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for his stance on China. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

Various American administrations, as well as the Pentagon, shunned the sale of state-of-the-art military hardware, raising concerns over the Philippines’ ability to effectively maintain modern weaponry.

Chronic corruption and limited defense spending also torpedoed earlier efforts by various Filipino presidents to ramp up their country’s defense acquisitions. 

Added to this has been half a century of rebellions across the Philippines’ impoverished peripheries, which deprived the country’s naval and air forces of much-needed resources for external defense in favor of the insurgency-focused army. 

In the 1990s, former president Fidel Ramos, a US West Point-trained general, sought to modernize the country’s defensive capabilities, especially after the withdrawal of US bases and the subsequent Chinese occupation of Manila-claimed Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. 

Under Ramos’ Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program, the Southeast Asian country sought to acquire, among other things, advanced fighter jets including 12 F/A-18C/D Hornets. The ensuing Asian financial crisis, however, undercut the first serious attempt at revamping the country’s armed forces. 

As a result, the country went from having one of the most advanced militaries in the region in the mid-20th century to lacking even a single 4th generation fighter jet in the first decade of the 21st century.

Under former president Benigno Aquino III, however, the Philippines launched its second version of the AFP Modernization Program, the Revised AFP Modernization Act, allocating billions of dollars to augmenting the country’s air force and naval capabilities.

During his first three years in office, the former president allocated $648.44 million for new acquisitions. Between 2013 and 2017, defense spending increased by 17%, with the former president allocating $1.73 billion for new procurements. 

The AIM-9 Sidewinder missile the Philippines would reportedly love to have in its armory. Photo: AFP / Leila Gorchev

Although his successor Rodrigo Duterte has adopted a diametrically opposed foreign policy of warmer ties with China, his top generals have continued to build on Aquino era reforms.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former defense attaché in Washington, took up the cudgels for the succeeding phases of the 15-year AFP modernization program. 

Under the Horizon II (2018 to 2022) phase, the Philippines allocated about $5.6 billion for augmenting the country’s capabilities against external threats, including the acquisition of advanced frigates, strategic missile systems and fighter jets.

The Horizon III phase (2023-2028), which would fall under the next Filipino president, is set to cover the acquisition of, among other things, the country’s first submarines. 

Thanks to Aquino’s efforts, the Philippines has managed to acquire modern frigates as well as modern fighters – Korea Aerospace Industries’ FA-50PH – which were deployed during the recent stand-off with China in the Whitsun Reef.

Facing increasing tensions in the South China Sea, however, the Philippines is intent on acquiring multirole fighter jets amid an arms race in the region, with China now rolling out its own fifth-generation stealth fighters. 

“We are pushing for the acquisition as it is a critical capability for the defense of our country’s territorial airspace from any form of threat and enforcement of Philippine Air Defense Identification Zone,” Lorenzana said last month during his speech at Sanay-Datu Air Defense Exercise in Basa Air Base, which is close to the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

An F-16 fighter aircraft over the runway of a US military airport. Photo: AFP / Harald Tittel/ DPA

“With multi-role fighter aircraft we can explore the facets of airpower,” said Lorenzana, who talked of the Philippines’ existing yet limited inventory of modern warplanes. “Likewise, it is imperative to fast track the establishment of a standardized tactical data link so that all our assets may be able to talk to each other,” he added. 

The proposed F16 deal with the US falls under the Philippines’ $1.18 billion Multi-Role Fighter Acquisition Project (Horizon 2). After culling multiple bids from leading defense contractors, the country is now deciding between Sweden’s much-cheaper Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen or the US’ much more advanced Block 70/72 version of the F-16, which is commonly used by top North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. 

Most defense experts agree that the F16 fighter package is the runaway winner, but the Philippine defense chief has fretted that it is “expensive” for the Philippine Air Force (PAF). “The US wants us to buy their F-16s. It’s very expensive so the PAF is evaluating others,” Lorenzana told the Philippine Daily Inquirer this week.

The final details of the proposed US fighter jet deal, which also requires congressional approval, are still up for negotiation. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, which has wrecked the Philippine economy, the Southeast Asian country has sustained historically high defense spending, underscoring its deepening strategic priorities.  

Perturbed by China’s actions in the South China Sea, top Philippine defense officials may very well seek a better deal with their American counterparts in order to set the tone for more robust bilateral relations under Duterte’s successor beginning in 2022.