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Once among the most modern air forces in the region, today the Philippine Air Force (PhAF) is in a constant struggle to keep its aircraft and helicopters flying. Political instability, corruption, the Asian currency crisis of 1997 and the ongoing operations against communist and Muslim insurgents are all reasons why the Philippine Air Force has no opportunity to strengthen itself and to develop an Air Force similar in capability to that of it neighbours. Despite modernization plans and efforts of improvements through more efficiency, the PhAF of today is seriously lacking the hardware and finances to meet its requirements. The PhAF has to go to great lengths to get the most out of the little they have. Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes, the Commanding General of the PhAF, explains the background of all these problems and how the PhAF is dealing with it an exclusive interview.

The history of the Philippine Air Force goes back to January 1920 when the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Aviation started the first actual military aviation training at Camp Claudio in Parañaque. In 1936 the Philippine Army Air Corps was created and it would take until the 1st of July 1947 before the Philippine Air Force would be established to become a separate command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In 1949 the PhAF acquired the P-51 Mustang to be used in the fight against communist and Muslim rebels. The jet age was entered in 1955 with the introduction of the Lockheed T-33 T-Bird followed by the acquisition of the F-86F Sabrejet in 1957. In 1965 the PhAF goes supersonic with the introduction of the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter.

EDSA Revolution
During the Eighties and the regime of Ferdinand Marcos the countries around the Philippines saw a steady growth of their economies allowing them to modernize their armed forces. At the same time the economy of the Philippines was collapsing and the AFP were left without funding to keep up with the development of the armed forces in its neighbouring countries. With the fall of Marcos following the EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos) or People's Power Revolution of 1986 the AFP were left with outdated equipment. Its command structure was not sufficient for adequate external defence and modernizing the armed forces became a necessity in order to bring the external defence capabilities of the AFP to a level of credible deterrence to external aggression, and to contribute to peace and stability of the ASEAN region.

AFP Modernization Law
The AFP needed to improve its external defence capabilities and a 15 year long modernization plan was designed; The AFP Modernization Law, also known as Public Act 7898, which was approved by the government on 19 December 1996. Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes explains the reasons behind this law: "Just past the mid-eighties after what is well known as the EDSA Revolution, the presence of armed insurgents of the communist movement rose to such an extent that it became a major problem. With a very good compelled plan we were able to almost decimate the problem to a level that it was not longer a major threat to the national security and so it was classified as a police problem." The priority of the AFP was no longer focussed on the internal security situation.

In 1991 the U.S. government decided to abandon Clark Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. In the same period the Philippine Senate decided not to re-new the, in 1947 singed, US - Philippines Military Bases Agreement which provided for the use of military bases in the Philippines by the US military. Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes continues: "With the departure of the Americans in 1991, we were left to perform the territorial defence of our country on our own with only our F-5s. Realizing that we were now on our own, the administration of then President Fidel Ramos started to work on a program that would increase the external defence capability of the country. In 1996 a law passed and we called it the AFP Modernisation Law, better known as the public act 7898. And so the modernization program came into existence." The AFP Modernization Program directed all forces to develop a modernization plan in line with the goals set by the public act. 7898 and the Air Force developed the PhAF Modernization Program. The program consists of five major components.

Capability, Material and Technology Development
Most of the 15 year budget of over 330 billion pesos was allocated to the modernization of the equipment used by the armed forces. For the Air Force this included the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft, radar systems and long-range maritime patrol aircraft. Unfortunately the Asian financial crisis of 1997 stopped the Air Force from investing in new equipment. Lt. Gen. Reyes explains: "The Asian financial crisis of 1997 had a very great effect on our modernisation. Over 330 billion pesos were allocated to the Modernization Program. Before the crisis one dollar equalled 26 pesos. However, after the financial crisis of 1997 the Peso had devaluated against the dollar to such an extend that what we could buy with on the initial budget was down to almost 50%." But it was not only the finical crisis that had a negative effect on the Modernization Program: "The number of communist insurgents, which we calculated to be just a plain police problem in the early nineties, grew again. So the insurgency situation worsened forcing us to utilize the armed forces again to counter this threat. The modernisation of the armed forces was relegated in lee of the requirements of the internal security operations, so we had to make some adjustments. Other then acquiring the very high budget items for the modernisation program like planes and radars, ships and tanks, we had to acquire equipment that is necessary for us to deal with this internal security situation."

Force Restructuring and Organizational Development
Force Restructuring and Organizational Development basically means re-structuring the air force to make it work more efficiently and more responsively. In first instance the units were organized along key functions rather then traditional geographic delineations and so the air force was organised into the Air Defence Command, Tactical Operations Command, Air Education & Training Command, Air Logistics Support Command and the Air Reserve Command. Since the Defence Department focussed the priority of the AFP on Internal Security Operations, it was decided to further re-structure and downgrade of the primary external defence operation units and so the Air Defence Command was de-activated on 31 March of this year and downgraded to an Air Defence Wing whereas the underlying 5th Fighter Wing was Downgraded to the 5th Fighter Group.

Other goals set forth in the PhAF Modernization Plan include Bases and Systems Resources Management; the acquisition of new equipment is part of the modernization process and you need bases with adequate support systems and facilities for this new equipment. Human Resources Development which is necessary as you need your people to be able to operate and work with the new equipment. This is done in two ways, by attracting people with a high technical background and by upgrading the training facilities. The last subject that needs attention as part of the Modernization Program is Doctrine Development. This includes the formulation and implementation of Rules-of-Engagements and doctrine at tactical, operational & strategics.

The Aircraft Recovery Program
It has been almost a decade since the introduction of the AFP Modernization Program and so far its goals are far from being accomplished and it is unlikely that things will improve soon. The program kept getting delayed because of the previously discussed problems. But with the increase of the insurgent problem and terrorist activities, the PhAF was determined in finding a solution, at least to improve its limited airborne assets. During his incumbency the then Commanding General of the PHAF Lt. Gen. Nestor R. Santillan initiated a program which prioritized the recovery of aircraft that were previously mothballed due to a lack of spares. This became known as the Aircraft Recovery Program (ARP), which proved extremely effective. By the end of his term 32 aircraft and helicopters had already been recovered without requiring additional funding. When Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes took command the ARP continued and now the total is over 40 aircraft and helicopters. Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes proudly explains about the background of this highly successful program: "The ARP started in 2002 to address the requirement of the AFP especially for the UH-1H. We have lots of UH-1Hs that have been down for years because of spares and there was a time when the air force was down to less then twenty flying helicopters. Considering the increasing need for our Internal Security Operations we had to have more UH-1Hs. The ARP started from that. We developed the capability of our 410th Maintenance Wing in Clark [Air Base], which is the depot level maintenance facility of the air force. We also developed the capability of our personnel. Over thirty percent of our maintenance budget is devoted to this program." Although initiated to recover mothballed UH-1Hs and MD-520MGs, the program proved so successful and so cost effective that other types of aircraft and helicopters were added. At present over 40 aircraft were added to the fleet through the ARP including SIAI-Marchetti SF-260M/TPs and S-211s, Sikorsky S-76s, GAF N.22A Nomads and Cessna T.4 Ds.

Huey II
Where possible the Air Force endeavours to get more out of the ARP than simply bringing mothballed assets back to service. On a variety of occasions the ARP has been combined with a modernization program. Plans to convert two UH-1Hs into the Huey II configuration were already drawn in 1997. The Huey II is based on an upgrade package for the UH-1H designed by Bell-Textron. The update kit consists of parts with longer service lives and shorter maintenance intervals as well as an engine upgrade from a Lycoming T53-L13B engine to the more powerful T53-703 engine. After the upgrade the helicopter's capabilities will be improved and the helicopter is better adapted to operating in hot and high environments. The update kit was delivered in 1999 but it was not until after a Technical Assistance Agreement was singed in May 2003 that work started. The upgrade of the first of two Huey II's was completed on 15 February 2004. The project was unique in the fact that it is the first Huey II (tail no 890) in South-East Asia and the first helicopter to receive this conversion outside the Bell/Textron facilities at Forth Worth, Texas, US. Because of its improved capabilities (including its higher cruising speed) the Air Force decided to assign this helicopter to the 505th Search and Rescue Group headquartered at Villamor Air Base, Pasay City, Metro Manila.

On the 12th of August two upgraded OV-10A Broncos (tail no. 801 and 611) were handed over to the 15th Strike Wing after conversion under the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). The extension of the service life of its OV-10s was seen as one of the priorities in light of the ongoing Internal Security Operations and the important role the OV-10 fulfils in this. American based Marsh Aviation developed, in close co-operation with Hartzell Propellers, the SLEP for the OV-10. The program consists of the overhaul and engine component modifications of the Garret-Airesearch T-76 G 10/12 Turboprop engines in-line with the propeller system migration from three-bladed to the Hartzell four-bladed propeller system. The program brings forth a more powerful aircraft with a better rate-of-climb, higher cruising speed, increased range and heavier payload. The two aircraft converted recently were previously mothballed and have now been painted grey. By the time that this article was written, it the was still unclear whether to designated this new OV-10 OV-10M (Modified) or OV-10SLEP. The program foresees the conversion of six aircraft in total, with the remaining four aircraft due for delivery this year.

Major Non-NATO Ally
As an appreciation for the country's role in the war against terror US President George W. Bush declared the Philippines in October 2003 as a member of an exclusive group of countries with the Major Non-NATO Ally status . The Philippines have been dealing with their own terrorist problem for decades including fighting the Abu Sayyaf, which is accused of having links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Lt. Gen. Reyes explains what positive effect this designation has for the PHAF: "The certification of the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally will help us to be prioritized by the United States in the delivery of defence articles through the US Excess Defence Article Program and as another benefit, we can participate in co-operative missions worldwide. In addition to this we can also avail of the financing under of the US$ 15 billion Defence Export Loan Guarantee Program. In July 2003 we received some [3] UH-1 night-capable helicopters and the repairs of our C-130s that is being done in co-operation with Lockheed-Martin is sponsored by the US government. We have also been given a high number of M16 assault rifles and Night Vision equipment for our fighting force."

Upcoming deliveries
The PHAF is in constant need for more tactical troop transport capability and therefore the expansion of the UH-1 fleet is highly desirable. Recently, twenty Hueys were acquired through Singapore Technologies Aerospace (STA) with deliveries completed in the second half of this year (2005). The helicopters delivered by STA were overhauled and modified before delivery, which included making them night-fighting capable. The Air Force is improving its combat capability by introducing night-fighting equipment. With the majority of the UH-1s already equipped for night-time operations, the Air Force expects to equip the remaining helicopters with this equipment and tests were carried out to also equip the MD-520MG with the right systems. The training of pilots in flying with night vision equipment was recently conducted in conjunction with the USAF 6th Special Operations Squadron.

In addition to the Hueys from STA the Air Force has also taken delivery of two Cessna Ce-172s for flying training bought on the civilian market. Additional equipment is expected in the near future. Lt. Gen. Reyes: "We expect to receive 20 refurbished helicopters under the Excess Defence Article Program later this year. We also hope to acquire enough additional attack helicopters for one new squadron. We are looking into an attack helicopter that is more powerful and more capable, in particular night capable. The [AH-1] Cobra is one of the candidates. It is a very well-known attack helicopter in the world and it might be an old helicopter, there are still many countries that are using the Cobra. In mutual exercises with the United States forces the Cobras have flown in tandem with the MG-520s." In addition to this is the Air Force is awaiting the delivery of more C-130s and looking for a small aircraft capable of flying up to 7 passengers from Manila to any part of the country. With a desperate need for long-range maritime patrol aircraft the Air Force prioritised and seems finally in a position where it is going to acquire around three of these aircraft, probably through the EDA Program.

F-5 Replacement
In 1965 the PhAF received its first supersonic aircraft with the arrival of the Northrop F-5. The type remained in service until the remaining fleet of eight F-5A/Bs was grounded after a fatal crash of an F-5A on 2 May 2001. The aircraft have not flown since. In the autumn of 2004 a 'Task Force Freedom Fighter' was established to conduct a comprehensive Non-Destructive Inspection of the grounded F-5 fleet to determine whether it was feasible to bring the F-5 back into service. Although the results were satisfactory, on Saturday 1 October [2005] the F-5 was officially decommissioned. Lt. Gen. Reyes explains: " As up to now the priority of the armed forces is to address the internal security problem. With our limited budget we are forced to maintain what we have. Since we mothballed our F-5s we are continuously refurbishing our S-211s so they can be used to maintain the flying proficiency and 'Fighter Spirit' of our fighter pilots. We are trying to equip the S-211 with [improved] weapons systems so that, when needed, we can also utilize it for CAS. When we reach the time that the AFP will be able to shift its attention to external defence operations, than that is the time we allow us to acquire fighter aircraft."

The future
Despite the limitations the AFP are facing and their struggle to meet all their requirements while still fighting an internal conflict the Philippine government has a mixed approach to dealing with these problems. Education of the people and improving the economy are the first priorities set by the government. The idea being that if the educational level increases and poverty goes down, the insurgents will loose their good-will and with it a great part of their support. With this approach by the government a rapid development of its armed forces are slowed down even further. The Air Force is optimistic about its medium and long term future. The final words go to Lt. Gen. Reyes: "First we need to end this internal security problem, hopefully within the next 5 years. Slowly we will then extend our external defence capability. In 10 to 15 years I see an Air Force, better equipped for external operations. I see an Air Force that will have fighter capability and an Air Force that will have adequate 'eyes to see the sky' at any time of the day completely equipped with radars. I see an Air Force that is capable to move troops and other people from one side of the country to the other in a short time. I have ambition to see an Air Force that can reach its mandate of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and an Air Force that can truly life to the expectations of our people!"

The author wishes to express his gratitude to the following persons for their help in preparing this article; Lt. Gen. Jose L. Reyes, Col. Restituto F. Padilla, Maj. Augusto D. Dela Peña, Capt. Joselito C. Munar and everyone else who contributed to the success of this project.