1st Time — China Threat Pushes Philippines To Send Its Warplanes To Australian War Games; PAF To Send FA-50 Jets

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is gearing up to deploy its FA-50 Fighting Eagles to participate in Australia’s large-scale multilateral air combat exercise, Pitch Black. 

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This will be the first time the PAF will be actively involved with aircraft in the exercise, showcasing its growing capabilities and commitment to regional defense cooperation. 

On April 9, PAF spokesperson Col. Maria Consuelo Castillo confirmed the Philippines’ intention to send an FA-50 light fighter aircraft to participate in the exercise scheduled for July to August.

“We’re getting ready for deployment for Pitch Black [exercises] in August. The Philippines will have an aircraft involvement since we will deploy a fighter aircraft, that is our plan for [Exercise] Pitch Black,” Col Castillo said.  

Castillo also noted that the deployment of the FA-50 will mark the PAF’s first participation in the exercise. The PAF currently boasts a fleet of 12 FA-50s, acquired from Korea Aerospace Industries in 2014 as part of a deal valued at P18.9 billion (approximately US$421.12 million) during the administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino Jr.  

However, the Filipino official did not disclose the number of aircraft that the Air Force would dispatch to Australia for the aerial exercise. 

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is currently engaged in the first iteration of Cope Thunder 2024 alongside the USA. 

The bilateral drills commenced at Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga, on April 8. During these drills, the Philippine Air Force is using its FA-50PH fighter jets, while the US Air Force is deploying its F-16, a supersonic multirole fighter.

Castillo highlighted that bilateral drills between the PAF and its United States counterparts are serving as preparation for the airmen slated for deployment in Exercise Pitch Black.  

Last year, Manila dispatched personnel as observers to Canberra’s biennial drills, setting the stage for deeper collaboration this year. According to the Royal Australian Air Force, Pitch Black, a cornerstone of Australia’s defense exercises, will host its first leg from July 15 to August 1.

The participation of the Philippines highlights the growing defense ties between Manila and Canberra, further bolstered by an existing status of visiting forces agreement, which provides a comprehensive legal framework for the presence of armed forces from both nations in each other’s territories. 

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Philippines Seeks “To Develop Interoperability” With Like-minded Countries

Pitch Black, a biennial event dubbed as the most significant tactical air activity in the region, focuses on “Large Force Employment” and encompasses the intricate management of air operations, including offensive counter-air and air interdiction scenarios. 

Hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force, the previous iteration of Pitch Black took place from August 19 to September 8 last year in Darwin, Australia, drawing participation from 15 countries, including the United States, Japan, India, Singapore, and the Philippines.

PH Air Force FA-50 light combat aircraft take part in PH-US joint maritime air patrol over Batanes and West Philippine Sea on Nov. 21, 2023. PAF

For the first time, the Philippines will deploy its FA-50 Fighting Eagles, which are expected to join over 100 fighter and support aircraft from various countries. 

This move underscores the Philippines’ determination to enhance readiness among regional allies, particularly amid growing security challenges.

PAF spokesperson Col. Castillo emphasized the importance of developing interoperability with like-minded countries in the face of regional threats. 

“We should know how to work together. At the same time, not only for possible combined or joint exercises in the future with other countries, but these are also important because we are learning a lot from them, especially on operating modern technology,” she added

The decision to participate in Pitch Black comes against the backdrop of escalating tensions stemming from China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have drawn condemnation from the international community. 

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The heightened tensions have spurred Manila to swiftly broaden its military alliances beyond its existing partnership with the USA, with neighboring allies such as Australia and Japan playing significant roles. 

For instance, the Philippines, along with Japan, the United States, and Australia, recently conducted their first joint maritime exercise in the disputed waters, reaffirming their commitment to uphold the rule of law and international norms.

While China has refused to recognize a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea, the joint statement released by the defense chiefs of the four nations reiterated the ruling’s finality and legally binding nature. 

Meanwhile, in response to the exercise, the Chinese military conducted a “strategic patrol” under the People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command, signaling its opposition to what it perceives as provocative military activities in the region.