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Officials Welcome US Sale Of Helicopters To Phl, But…

Officials Welcome US Sale Of Helicopters To Phl, But…
Philippine Air Force personnel arrive at the Villamor Air Base on a C-130 aircraft after picking up medical supplies from China’s Xiamen International Airport on April 17, 2020. | Photo courtesy of PAF

Philippine officials welcomed on Wednesday, May 13, the United States’ renewed interest to sell military equipment to the Philippines despite the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries last February.

According to Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez, the US has repeatedly committed to remain an ally of the Philippines despite President Duterte’s move to terminate the VFA.

On Feb. 11, the Philippines sent the US a notice to terminate the VFA, which sets the terms for joint exercises and engagement of American soldiers in the Philippines. Romualdez said the process for the VFA abrogation would be completed by Aug. 9.

Despite this, Romualdez said during the “Laging Handa” public briefing that the US “is very much committed to helping us in terms of our modernization program and they really would like to see us… get as much equipment from the United States for our inter-operability in terms of our Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).”

The 1951 MDT is the Philippines’ sole defense treaty with another country.

“That is continuing, there is really no stopping the program that we have between our (militaries),” Romualdez noted. “The VFA is a local situation where we have American soldiers coming and they are protected legally in the Philippines. They have this all over the world.”

“In our case, of course, we’ve terminated that. They are prepared that for (programs) like Balikatan, (these can) either be removed, canceled or (carried out) on a limited basis, which both governments could agree on,” he said.

Washington has approved the possible sale of Bell and Boeing attack helicopters to Manila, its long-time security ally and former colony, despite soured relations due to the scrapping of the two-decade-old VFA.

In a statement, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said it had notified the US Congress after the US State Department gave its go-signal for the sale of six Boeing Apache AH-64E and six Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters worth close to $2 billion (P100 billion).

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in Southeast Asia,” DSCA said in a statement. “The proposed sale of this equipment will not alter the basic military balance in the region.

In a virtual press briefing at Malacañang, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine Air Force has been beefing up its military assets since the start of the Duterte administration.

“On the procurement of attack helicopters since 2016, the Philippine Air Force chose from different platforms including the Apache and Viper and other attack helicopters from other countries,” Lorenzana said.

“Usually, the go-signal of the United States’ State Department is needed if they will sell, so the PAF requested for details if we will procure from the US.  It took them more than a year or almost two years to give a reply,” the defense chief added.

Lorenzana said this development is not connected with the termination of the VFA, but “a continuation of what was done beforehand.”

While the Department of National Defense welcomes the US move, Lorenzana said the DND is still looking at other options to ensure that the budget for helicopters is used properly.

“I think that’s $1.5 billion to $2 billion for six attack helicopters. We cannot afford that.  We only have an allocation of P13 billion, so if we will buy with that amount, we can only buy one or two units.  That’s why we are looking at other countries where we can buy a few more with the same amount,” Lorenzana said.

The Philippines has allocated P300 billion to upgrade its military capability to catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors and protect its national interests, particularly in the disputed South China Sea.

It planned to acquire attack helicopters separately for the PAF and Philippine Army, earmarking P13.8 billion for an unspecified number of attack helicopters for the PAF’s 15th Strike Wing.

Two years ago, the PAF’s technical working group selected the T129 ATAK helicopter manufactured by Turkey, according to Lorenzana.

But the deal with Turkey hit a snag last year as it could not guarantee to deliver certain US-made components for the T129 ATAK helicopter after Washington slapped sanctions on Ankara when it decided to acquire Russian missiles.

DND sources said the PAF chose the Turkish helicopter over the American and Russian Hind and Havoc, respectively, due to the interoperability of the aircraft with AFP equipment plus the more affordable price tag.

The T129 ATAK is not only much cheaper but its US components would make it compatible with US-made helicopters, which the Philippine military uses.

Recently, US defense manufacturers amended their proposals, making both Apache and Viper more affordable and sweetening the deal by offering additional units of refurbished helicopters.

Both Boeing and Bell are eyeing the Philippine market, hoping they can sell equipment not only for the PAF but for the Army as well. In fact, the US Army has offered second-hand and older versions of the Apache helicopters.

The DSCA said the proposed sale would help the Philippines develop and maintain strong capabilities for self-defense, counterterrorism and critical infrastructure protection. “The Philippines will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment and support into its armed forces,” it added.

The Arizona-based Boeing offered 18 AH-64E engines, including six spares, as well as full armaments of 200 air-to-ground or AGM-1140 Hellfire missiles; 12 M36E9 Hellfire Captive Air Training Missiles; 300 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System kits; 18 new Stinger air-to-air launchers; 5,000 2.75 inch rockets; 80,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition; and radars, communications and targeting system worth $1.5 billion.

“There will be no adverse impact on US defense readiness as a result of this proposed sale,” the DSCA said.

Boeing will partner with Florida-based Lockheed to manufacture the attack helicopters and offer them under the US State Department’s Foreign Military Sales program.

Bell’s offer includes 14 AH-1Z Viper engines, including two spares; six air-to-ground AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles; 26 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System kits; and radars, avionics and communications worth $450 million.

The Viper will be manufactured at Bell’s Texas plant in partnership with General Electric.

The US State Department allowed defense contractors to travel several times to the Philippines to participate in program and technical reviews, training and maintenance support for a temporary period of 24 months.

The US renewed its interest to sell military equipment to the Philippines despite the cancellation of the VFA in February. The VFA allowed US military presence on rotation basis for training and exercises in the Philippines.

Two years ago, Duterte scrapped a Bell contract to supply combat utility helicopters after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the Philippine leader’s human rights record, forcing the PAF to return to the drawing board.

Duterte has also stopped the defense and interior departments from acquiring weapons systems from the US and other western countries for linking arms sales to human rights records.

Last year, the defense department offered the supply contract for combat utility helicopters to Poland-based PZL Mielec, which makes Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters. PZL Mielec is part of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. The Polish firm joined the tender for attack helicopters, offering the Battle Hawk helicopter, a variant of its S-70i aircraft.

The PAF has to make a decision on which attack helicopter to acquire as Turkey cannot guarantee to deliver six TAI 129 ATAK.

An Army colonel familiar with the attack helicopter said a decision has to be made in two months because the funds for the project would revert to the treasury if it is not obligated by December 2020.

The Philippines has been looking for funding after realigning its P4.1-trillion budget for 2020 due to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic.

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