Flight to glory | Rene Acosta



THE Philippine Air Force (PAF), brandishing its newly acquired assets, will showcase a new milestone in its modernization phase with a flyby in the skies of the National Capital Region and elsewhere as the country observes its 124th Independence Day on Sunday (June 12).

FA-50 fighter jets, Black Hawks, Super Tucanos, Agusta Westland and the rest of the newest assets of the PAF will briefly streak over Metro Manila’s horizon to mark the auspicious occasion in history against a backdrop of a myriad of challenges confronting the country.

BELL 412EP combat utility helicopters

The roaring thunder from the engine of South Korean-made fighter planes and the bombastic sound and thunderous clapping of the helicopters will serve as short melodies to the country’s marking of its 124th Independence Day.

For Filipinos, the aircraft’s flyby may just be a grand spectacle, something that had been missing for years in the celebrations of the country’s freedom D-day; but for the Air Force, it means much more: it denotes a homecoming—a big return to the skies.

The true message

OTHER than a gesture of unity to the Independence Day celebrations, the sight of modest advanced air assets in the skies above Luneta Park conveys the message that the Air Force is slowly moving to reclaim its old glory.

It reassures everyone that it is steadily maneuvering away from the non-flattering tag of being “all air with no force,” a line which Voltaire Gazmin dropped years ago as a defense secretary, to ruefully describe the Air Force’s condition and underscore the need to modernize it.

Air Force Commanding General Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas: “The PAF continues to modernize its air assets and equipment. It may not be on a par yet with our Southeast
Asian neighbors, but we are moving towards a more capable and credible Air Force.”

The show of jets and attack helicopters in the Independence Day celebrations also intends to show the Air Force has since flipped and veered away from Gazmin’s rather derisive but somehow realistic description. But that was then.

Evolution

“TODAY, the PAF has evolved into a modernized air force anchored on the Flight Plan 2028, which has achieved significant milestones in the PAF’s development and ability to detect, identify, intercept and neutralize threats within the Philippine defense area of operations,” said Air Force Commanding General Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas.

The Air Force was answering queries from the BusinessMirror on the current state of the military’s primary air unit and how it is comparable with the air forces of its neighbors in the region, assets and equipment wise.

In the middle part of the 1950s up to the middle part of the administration of the late strongman former President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., the PAF had been the object of envy, not only by its neighbors but even by countries in the Asia-Pacific region, due to its strength and air superiority.

It was equipped with the most modern planes and other aircraft that could fly at that time. In fact, it already had the most modern US fighter plane, the F-5 Phantom, long before Japan could even acquire it.

The formation of the PAF’s aerobatic team, the fabled “Blue Diamonds,” in 1952, which is even older than the US Air Force’s Thunderbirds, was a testament to the PAF’s worldwide “grandeur” in the sky.

After the end of the Marcos government, the state of the Air Force and even the whole of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spiraled. It came even to a point when PAF had to make do with second-hand assets.

While there have been efforts to revive the Air Force along with the AFP, the supposed modernization attempts and the corresponding funding, if not squandered, would only suffice to repair and rehabilitate existing Army, Air Force and Navy assets even in their vintage state.

T-129 ATAK multi-role, all-weather attack helicopter

“The PAF continues to modernize its air assets and equipment. It may not be on a par yet with our Southeast Asian neighbors, but we are moving towards a more capable and credible Air Force,” Canlas said.

Canlas talked about the Air Force’s capability upgrade efforts under the overall revised modernization program of the AFP, which will also seek to modernize the whole military under  three phases—Horizon, 1, 2 and 3. It began during the administration of the late President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and will punctuate at the end of the term of Marcos Sr.’s son, incoming President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr., or in 2028.

PAF under Duterte, Horizon 2

AS it upgrades, the Air Force has already acquired a modest number of what might be considered as state-of-the-art assets, in the arsenal of a conventional air force. Most of these were acquired and were delivered under the term of President Duterte, who steps down at noon of June 30.

“President Rodrigo Duterte has always shown his strong support in pursuing the AFP modernization. During his administration, we have acquired new air assets and equipment that will further improve the welfare and capabilities of the Philippine Air Force to conduct internal and external defense missions,” Air Force spokesman Col. Maynard Mariano said.

According to Mariano, these air assets include the Cessna-208B Grand Caravan; ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles; NC212i; C-130 plane; radar systems; A-29B Super Tucano; Gulfstream G280 command and control aircraft; S-70i Black Hawk Utility Helicopters; C-295 Medium-lift aircraft; T-129 ATAK helicopters; Hermes 450 and 900 Unmanned Aerial Systems.

Defender of both land and air

S-70i Black Hawk helicopter

UNDER Duterte, the Air Force made great strides from just being a gatekeeper of Philippine skies to defender of the land, literally, as it pursued, or is now embarking on, projects that will give it the capability to conduct land and air defense and warfare.

It has already sealed a contract for the delivery of batteries of Spyder air defense systems from an Israeli company, which recently has already delivered missile simulators for the Air Force.

As Mariano said, the simulators will train airmen who are future missile operators, to prepare them for real-world challenges as well as to increase their personnel knowledge and skills, and develop the right attitude for air and missile defense.

The Spyder will not be the last but only the initial for the Air Force in the area of conventional warfare.

“The PAF will be having the ground-based air defense system which will conduct defensive counter air operations in order to protect PAF units, air assets, installations, friendly forces and selected high-value assets from aerial attack, missile and surveillance threats,” Mariano said.

The military is already acquiring its shore-based defense capability with the awaited delivery of the supersonic and Indian-made Brahmos missile systems to the Philippine Marines, and which the Army is also projected to acquire in land-based form.

The Air Force is also looking at adding or beefing up its fighter jets—eyeing assets that may very well include US-made F-16s and the Swedish-made Gripen.

“The PAF is projected to procure multi-role fighter aircraft which is considered vital in the country’s defense capability to deter intrusions in the country’s airspace,” Mariano said.

“The Philippines has considered procuring Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon from the US, but it is still unlikely for us to acquire it this year because of the budgetary constraints,” he added. “However, we are also considering SAAB’s JAS 39 Gripen.”

The effort of the Air Force to develop its capability should swell into the Horizon 3, where it plans to procure more air assets and equipment.

However, the unit’s capability upgrade may come to naught if the airmen do not have the skills, knowledge, technical expertise and even the correct mindset to operate their modern assets and equipment. As such, Canlas said, the PAF is working to ensure that the “modernization” also applies to its personnel.

“With the upcoming capability acquisitions, the PAF requires more personnel. Purposive personnel procurement is being implemented by the PAF,” the Air Force chief said.

“Empowerment and opportunities for NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and enlisted personnel are important for their personal and professional growth, such as foreign schooling, seminars and symposia,” he added.

Key roles in internal security operations, territorial defense

MORE than two weeks from now, the PAF will be marking its 75th anniversary, and as such, it tries to recap its feats and achievements that contributed to the overall accomplishment of the military’s mission, both in internal security operations and territorial defense.

It also synthesizes its missions and programs for next year.

“The PAF has accomplished several milestones in the previous years. In terms of internal and territorial defense missions, the PAF has played a significant role by performing close air support, troop insertion, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of our ground troops to accomplish the overall mission of the AFP,” Canlas said.

“One of the programs of the Duterte administration is to end terrorism and violent extremism in the country. The PAF has played significant roles in the successful delivery of air power required to support our ground troops in accomplishing the AFP mission,” he added.

At the Kalayaan Island Group and West Philippine Sea, the Air Force has supported the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea by conducting and continuing to conduct maritime patrol using assets such as the AS-211 and UAVs.

While the Chinese are just lurking in the country’s maritime waters which they dispute, the Air Force is undeterred in asserting the country’s sovereignty and ownership, Canlas said, vowing that the PAF will “never stop in defending and serving the country” and its people.

Soar high under Marcos Jr.

THE Air Force has high hopes that its modernization will continue and soar higher under the administration of the incoming President. This hope is shared by the military as a whole.

The older Marcos had left a legacy of a strong military in terms of assets and equipment, which  was the envy of and the yardstick for years by other militaries in the region in terms of strength and firepower. As such, expectations run high that the younger Marcos will add a chapter to this legacy, given the current territorial challenges.

“We hope that incoming President Marcos Jr. will support the modernization of the PAF and the AFP in totality,” Canlas said.

“Our target is to achieve the PAF’s Flight Plan 2028, and…we will pursue the development strategy plans of the Philippine Air Force,” he vowed.

Image credits: PAF



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