Naval Air: China Takes An Intimidation Hit

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April 29, 2020: The Philippines is buying four Japanese FPS-3 air search radars for $103 million. One will be mobile and mounted on trucks. FPS-3 is a modern AESA (Active Electronic Scanned Array) type radar with a search and detection range of over 400 kilometers. It can track multiple contacts by indicating the direction, range and altitude of each contact. FPS-3 is used extensively by the Japanese air defense system. AESA radar is a 1960s development that, over the decades, got cheaper and more compact. It is now becoming the standard. AESA has better range and resolution than older designs. AESA uses a fixed plate of radar elements with radar beams directed electronically across the sky, rather than a constantly moving radar dish with lots of mechanical parts that are prone to break down. Japan has become a major source of AESA radars and other military technology that the Philippines needs to defend itself from China.

For example, in early 2016 Japan agreed to lease the Philippines five TC-90 aircraft for under a million dollars a year. Not only was this inexpensive but of great military value to the Philippines. The TC-90 doubles the range of Filipino coastal surveillance from 300 to 600 kilometers. Until quite recently it was illegal for Japan to do this sort of thing. Japan changed its laws in 2014 to allow for the export of military equipment (under certain conditions) and has supplied the Philippines with a lot more low-cost help like the TC-90s. For that reason, China protested this Japanese support for the Philippines because the expanding Chinese navy now has more eyes on it.

The TC-90 is one of many military versions of the popular King Air twin-engine civilian transport. Many are used for military purposes like training, transport, electronic warfare and surveillance. Japan has been using them since the 1970s. In fact, one of the most common military air transports is the King Air, with nearly 300 still in American military service. It’s not surprising that most people think of the King Air as a civilian aircraft because most of the 6,000 built since the 1960s have been for commercial use. Yet one of the first customers in the 1960s was the U.S. Army. Since then more than a thousand King Airs have been bought, often second-hand, by the military because the price was right and the King Air could get the job done.

The Philippines also purchased twelve South Korean FA-50 armed trainers for $49 million each. All were delivered by 2017. The single-engine, two-seat jet aircraft is intended to restore combat aircraft capability in the Philippines Air Force. The FA-50 is the combat version of the South Korean designed and manufactured T-50 jet trainer. This aircraft was developed in the 1990s and entered service in 2005. The 13 ton aircraft is actually a light fighter and can fly at supersonic speeds. With some added equipment (radars and fire control) the T-50 becomes the FA-50, a combat aircraft. This version carries a 20mm auto-cannon and up to 4.5 tons of smart bombs and missiles. The T-50 can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and has a service life of 8,000 flight hours.

Since 2005, when the Philippines removed from service its eight F-5 fighters, there were no fighter aircraft in the Filipino air force. These 1960s era aircraft were not much of a match for more recent warplanes and were expensive to maintain. In the meantime, the Philippines used armed turboprop trainer aircraft for strikes against Moslem and communist rebels.

The FPS-3 radars and FA-50 aircraft restore Filipino ability to better protect its air space than any time in the past. While these new systems are no competition for the airpower China can deploy in the South China Sea it does force the Chinese to be careful in how they use their coast guard and navy warships to intimidate Filipino fishing boats being forced out of waters that are legally Filipino but now claimed by China. It takes the impunity out of these Chinese efforts. The Chinese are not unprepared for this. The new Chinese aircraft carriers enable China to up the ante when it comes to intimidation. But to do that it exposes these carriers to retaliation by Filipino allies as well as the Philippines itself as the Philippines is also shopping for anti-ship missiles large, fast and scary enough to intimidate a Chinese carrier task force. The Philippines also has backups in any confrontation with China. Not just American carriers but also Japanese submarines. These subs are superior to anything China has and pose a very real threat to any Chinese carriers operating in the South China Sea.

The Philippines may not be as heavily armed as China, but preparations have been made to deal with any Chinese use of force, or intimidation.

 


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