The Golden Eagle Is The Philippines’s New Big Stick Against Insurgents
New FA-50 fighters are suddenly very popular
Around midnight on Jan. 25, 2017, residents near the town of Lanao Del Sur on the Philippine island of Mindanao abruptly heard a series of explosion accompanied by the sound of roaring jet engines.
The attack had been led by two of the Philippine Air Force’s newly-acquired FA-50 Golden Eagle fighters, Korean-made advanced jet trainers upgraded to do double duty as supersonic fighters.
Staging from Benito Ebuen Air Base on centrally-located Cebu island, the Golden Eagles had delivered six unguided 500-pound bombs in an attempt to kill Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group which had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Shrapnel from the bombs severely wounded the insurgent leader in the arm. He was observed being dragged away on a makeshift litter and has not been heard of since.
Philippine soldiers swooped down on the area the following morning after an artillery bombardment, and reportedly found the bodies of four militants out of an estimated 15 killed in the attack, including that of an Indonesian Islamic militant known as Mohisen.
Regarding the incident, Philippine general Eduardo Ano made a revealing remark in Tagalog. “It turns out that the FA-50s are not only for external defense or for ceremonies. We can also use it for internal security operations and it’s a good justification for its procurement. It is very precise.”
That bit about “ceremonies” is clearly a response to the opinion expressed on more than one occasion by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte that the new fighters were useful only for “ceremonial flybys.” Indeed, Duterte has been a critic of the jet fighter for years.
However, since January 2017, FA-50s have made several more air strikes against rebels in The Philippines—and recent statements by the Philippine president suggest he intends to employ it against an expanding list of enemies.
For more than a decade the Philippine Air Force had no operational jet fighters—a troublesome situation given the populous nation’s escalating disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea.
The Philippine armed forces decided to hold off on buying sophisticated multi-role fighters such as the F-16 or JAS 39 Gripen, and instead acquired a cheaper and lighter jet that could serve as both a trainer and combat plane. This would give it new pilots and ground crew a chance to gain experience with a more forgiving airplane.
Korea Aerospace Industries designed the two-seat T-50 family of jet trainers incorporating some of the DNA of the F-16, which the company had produced under license. The easy-handling and extremely maneuverable lead-in flight trainers can attain Mach 1.5 and has the radar and the avionics to employ precision-guided JDAM bombs or Maverick missiles.
The FA-50 fighter variant can carry 8,500 pounds of munitions on seven hardpoints, including Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles, in addition to its integrated triple-barrel 20 millimeter cannon. A related subtype, the T-50A, is currently one of two leading contenders in the U.S. Air Force’s competition to replace the T-38 Talon jet trainer, the other is the Boeing T-X.
The first of 24 T-50s also began entering service in the Iraqi Air Force in March 2017.
Pres. Benigno Aquino III attends the handover of FA-50PH Golden Eagle jets to the Philippine Air Force in December 2015. Photo via Wikipedia
Just because the FA-50 can use precision-guided weapons doesn’t mean the expensive weapons are widely available to the Philippine military, as evidenced by the use of unguided bombs in the January strike. However, the Golden Eagle’s targeting computer also makes it relatively precise when employing unguided bombs.
Another issue is the FA-50’s current lack of long-range air-to-air missiles, without which the FA-50 would be of limited use as an air-defense system. KAI claims it will eventually upgrade the FA-50 to fire the long-range AIM-120 used by the U.S. Air Force. Meanwhile, the Philippine Air Force has considered an option to equip some of its FA-50s with the medium-range radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles for more than $20 million per plane in upgrade costs.
In fact, Duterte has argued that PAF’s few FA-50s are pointless because they could not hope to fight off Chinese fighter planes based across the South China Sea. “There’s only one purpose for buying it,” he remarked in June 2016. “To match the air power at least one-on-one verses China. But, beyond Scarborough Shoal, son of a gambler, there are 300 MiGs there.”
It’s true you wouldn’t want to pit a Golden Eagle against a J-11, a Chinese derivative of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, especially without beyond-visual-range missiles. But the FA-50 was always intended to be a stepping stone to acquiring more capable multi-role fighters—most likely the F-16, although Duterte has floated the idea of buying Russian fighters as well.
Duterte’s famous antipathy for the United States due to its history of imperialism in The Philippines appears to have spilled over to the Golden Eagle. “They [the United States] sold us only two FA-50,” he complained in a speech last September. “They never gave us the missiles and the bullets and the cannons to fight.” Defense officials later had to clarify that the FA-50s came from South Korea.
“Bye bye, America!” Duterte crooned in December 2016. “China said they will provide [military equipment].” However, a statement by the Philippine president early in April seem to put his administration confusingly back on a path of confrontation with China.
The Golden Eagle was expensive for the Philippines—the $421-million deal equaling one fifth of the national defense budget when it was approved. The new jets have been slowly dribbling in twos since late 2015, the arrival of each new pair receiving public ceremonies and jubilant media coverage. The last two Golden Eagles will finally arrive in May 2017.
Duterte had reasoned the Philippine armed forces should give up on opposing China’s claims to nearby islands and spend the money instead on killing drug dealers and insurgents, a role he felt the FA-50 was useless for. However, the Golden Eagle is actually quite useful in a counter-insurgency role due to its ability to deliver precision air strikes and carry significant weapons loads.
These qualities appear to have made the jet fighter the new big stick of choice as The Philippines attempts to deal with insurgent conflicts that have persisted for decades—though not everyone feels that’s a good thing.
Both Communist and Islamist insurgencies have been active in the Philippines for over a century. However, in the last decade there’s been major progress in scaling back the fighting. Duterte announced early in his presidency that he would negotiate an end to the roughly 50-year war with the Communist New People’s Army.
And the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which in one form or another has fought a separate Moro state since the 1960s, signed a peace treaty in 2013.
However, Islamist splinter groups continue to perform kidnappings, assassinations and terrorist attacks as part of umbrella group Abu Sayyaf. Abdurajik Janjalani, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, formed the splinter group in the late 1980s allegedly with $6 million in seed money donated by Osama Bin Laden.
Abu Sayyaf went on to perpetrate the world’s deadliest maritime terrorist attack in 2004 when a bomb sank Superferry 14, killing 116.
Photo via Wikipedia
The target of the January 2017 attack, Isnilon Hapilon, first attracted public attention when he held three Americans for ransom in 2001, and ended up killing two of them. He survived being seriously injured in combat in 2013 and abandoned his former loyalties to Al Qaeda and pledged his group to ISIS.
In April 2016, Hapilon’s fighters reportedly wiped out a platoon of Filipino troops in the Battle of Tipo Tipo in on Basilan Island. Then on Sept. 2, 2016, his group bombed the night market in Davao City—where Duterte had formally served as mayor—killing 15 and wounding 70.
According to Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, Hapilon had supposedly moved from his stronghold in Basilan with instructions from ISIS to form a new caliphate on the much larger island of Mindanao.
Golden Eagles have continued to harry the radical groups associated with Abu Sayyaf. Roughly around the time Abu Sayyaf decapitated German hostage Jurgen Kantner on Feb. 27, 2017, another Golden Eagle hit the group’s encampment at Al Barka on Basilan island at 3:00 in the morning. Troops of the 1st Infantry Division reported finding blood trails there but did not report any bodies.
Then on March 11, 2017, two more FA-50s dropped four bombs on a camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters near Datu Salibo in South West Mindanao. This attack, followed by a 105 millimeter howitzer barrage and a ground assault by an infantry battalion, killed 11 insurgents according to the Philippine Army 6th Infantry Division.
However, the BIFF later claimed they had no fighters present at Datu Salibo. Furthermore, more than a thousand civilians had been displaced by the bombardment.
Meanwhile, negotiations with the Maoist NPA rebels, who had been initially encouraged by Duterte’s anti-American rhetoric, broke down in January. After an NPA ambush killed four policemen in March, the hotheaded present, who once claimed to have personally thrown a man off a helicopter, appears to be in a vengeful mood. “They better choose. I’m ready for all-out war. Another 50 year? Fine!” Duterte announced.
It was at this point that Duterte stopped complaining about the Golden Eagles—and began boasting about them. “I can assure everybody that the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police will respond,” he said in March 2017. “This time, I’m using everything. I have encouraged the police to call in the air assets and the new jets, make use of the rockets, bombs. Collateral damage? Sorry!”
“I have new jets,” he said in a speech in April 2017. “New jets that faster than the speed of sound. So you need to look behind you because they’ll be flying overhead before you hear them coming.”
On March 16, 2017, forest fires broke out near the village of Malibcong in the province of Abra in Luzon and spread into nearby farming fields. According to several local organizations and a town councilman, the fires were caused by a total of fourteen bombs dropped by jets and helicopters in multiple air raids.
It’s not clear if any jets present were FA-50s, as the Philippine Air Force also flies S-211 jet trainers which can be used in a ground attack role.
The attacks appeared to be in retaliation for an NPA raid on the local police station on the night of March 12, 2017, followed by an ambush that wounded five policemen.
While the bombardment reportedly didn’t kill any civilians, this incident and the one in Bangsamoro caused both domestic and international human rights groups to complain about the use of firepower near populated areas. However, the Philippine military denies it made air strikes in Abra and claims the NPA set the fires to cover their escape.
Plans for a second squadrons of FA-50s were cancelled after Duterte’s election last year. However, Manila may have changed its mind about the fighter since then.
“We are constantly evaluating the jet and so far, it’s performance has been good,” Brig. Gen. Ernesto Padilla recently announced. “If we will be given additional funding and authority, we might acquire six more units.”
It seems Duterte has come to appreciate the Golden Eagle now that it has proven its effectiveness as a counterinsurgency weapon. Hopefully the Philippine president’s use of the new jet fighters will not prove as indiscriminate as his war on drugs.