The Philippines on Saturday received the delivery of two Korean-made fighter jets — the country’s first supersonic combat aircraft in a decade — as it strengthens its underfunded military amid an escalating territorial feud with China.
Amid applause from Philippine defense officials, the FA-50 jets touched down at Clark Freeport, a former U.S. Air Force base north of Manila, where fire trucks sprayed water as a traditional welcome salute for the still-unarmed aircraft.
The Philippines bought 12 FA-50s, which are primarily trainer jets that the military converted to also serve as multi-role combat aircraft, from Korea Aerospace Industries at a cost of 18.9 billion pesos ($402 million). The other jets would be delivered in batches until 2017.
Weapons that include bombs and rockets for the FA-50s will be purchased later.
“We’re glad we’re finally back to supersonic age,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
The Philippine military decommissioned its last fleet of supersonic combat aircraft, the F-5, in 2005. A military modernization program that included plans for the purchase of at least a squadron of fighter jets and naval frigates didn’t happen for several years largely because of a lack of funds.
Over the years, the military has deteriorated to become one of Asia’s weakest.
Under President Benigno Aquino III, however, territorial spats with China over islands in the South China Sea escalated and resulted in the Chinese seizure of a disputed shoal in 2012, prompting the military to scramble to acquire new navy ships and air force planes with the help of its long-time defense treaty ally, the United States.
Lt. Col. Rolando Condrad Peña III, one of three Filipino air force pilots who received training in Korea to fly the FA-50s, said that the jets could carry enough munitions payload and could be used in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
“Now that we have a supersonic aircraft our reaction time will be faster,” Pena told reporters.
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