2011/12/22

Philippines seeks US F-16s amid China concerns

MANILA, December 21, 2011 (AFP) - The Philippines wants to acquire F-16 fighter jets from the United States as part of stepped up efforts to defend the archipelago, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Wednesday.

The nation lagged behind in protecting its territory, del Rosario said, with air cover next on Manila's wish list after it bought a refurbished US Coast Guard vessel this year with plans to acquire two other similar vessels.

Chances were "high" that Manila would acquire the fighter planes, but del Rosario did not reveal further details.

China has caused disquiet in Washington and Asian capitals with its claim to all of the South China Sea, a region that encompasses vital shipping lanes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and mineral reserves.

"We are upgrading the capacity of our armed forces for territorial defence. I think we are behind the curve" in terms of military capability in Asia, del Rosario told reporters.

The Philippines, which has one of the most poorly-equipped militaries in Asia, retired the last of its fighter jets in 2005.

Any jet deal would be for second-hand F-16s with Manila on the hook to pay for reconditioning, maintenance and pilot training, del Rosario said.

Last month, the US and Indonesia announced the planned transfer and upgrade of two dozen US F-16s to the Indonesian air force.

Filipino officials raised the potential jet deal during a visit last month by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pledged a wide-ranging commitment to its former colony, from military to economic cooperation, and said Washington must address "new challenges" in the region.

The Philippine foreign minister on Wednesday also downplayed reports the US was planning to station navy ships in the country, which hosted two US military bases until 1992 when their government lease was not renewed.

"Essentially, we have not discussed anything regarding specifically the Philippines except for the assistance they are willing to provide in terms of improving our (military) capacity," he said.