F-16 vs. Gripen: Philippines seeks a second-hand upgraded fighter

Gastón Dubois

PAF F-16 vs Gripen

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is in the process of choosing between the U.S. built Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Swedish SAAB JAS-39 Gripen for its multi-role fighter (MRF) program.

According to the Philippine national news agency, PAF spokesman Col. Maynard Mariano commented last Tuesday that the Swedish and U.S. bids are the finalists, prevailing over bids from India (HAL Tejas) and China (JF-17 Thunder).

“(The) last two contenders, (for the PAF MRF project are the) F-16V Block 50/52 version and the JAS-39 Gripen C/D+ version,” in the words of the PAF spokesman.

Col. Mariano said that although the MRF project has been approved, the government has yet to allocate funds for it.

“For the MRF, the project is approved with the Memorandum of Acquisition Decision issued, the government still has to find a way to fund the said project,” he added.

Earlier, PAF chief Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas Sr. said the service’s MRF project has been approved by former President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

The contract for the MRF project may be signed this year, Canlas said, adding that the PAF’s requirement for the project stipulates that the offered aircraft must be “fourth generation or higher.”

That’s right, these are not new aircraft

What is striking about the proposals being considered by the PAF is that they are versions of second-hand fighters, modernized to the latest technological standard.

F-16 Viper

The U.S. offer, according to the same PAF spokesman, would be based on a pair of F-16 Block 50/52, upgraded to the Viper standard, which is Lockheed Martin’s offer to bring these aircraft, with a considerable backlog of flight hours, to a level of technological parity with new built fourth generation plus plus (4++) fighters, such as F-16 Block 70, Gripen E, Rafale, etc.

F-16V
F-16 Viper avionics package. Image: LM

The Viper configuration incorporates new fifth-generation avionics and glass cockpit, centered around Northrop Grumman’s APG-86 SABR AESA radar, which greatly enhances all the fighter’s tactical capabilities.

Many F-16 Block 50/52 operators are taking their fighters to this advanced configuration, such as Greece, Taiwan, and possibly soon, Turkey.

See also: F-16 Block 70s are getting closer to Turkey

Gripen C/D+

Analogous to the U.S. offering, Sweden and SAAB are reportedly offering a batch of Gripen C and D fighters (single-seat and two-seat) upgraded with fifth-generation electronics, unofficially designated standard “C+”.

These fighters could be second-hand, or even newly built, like those offered to Croatia at the time.

SAAB AESA radar Gripen
The AESA radar developed by SAAB, uses GaN type TRMs, more powerful and modern than other radars of previous technology. Photo: SAAB

The C+ modernization will likely integrate much of the state-of-the-art avionics present on the Gripen E and other Generation 4++ fighters. Although it is possible that in this case, SAAB will offer its own AESA radar for the modernization, rather than the Leonardo ES-05 Raven of the E model.

One advantage the Gripen C would have would be that it uses the same General Electric F-404 engine as the FA-50PH, of which the PAF owns a dozen (and intends to buy more).

FA-50PH
PAF’s FA-50PH

An answer before limited budgets

Clearly, if the PAF is interested in used (but modernized) fighter aircraft, it is facing budgetary constraints.

Some time ago, the U.S. had approached Manila with a proposal for a dozen new F-16 Block 70s, along with a small armament package, for about $2.43 billion. However, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana dismissed the offer as too expensive.

SAAB’s offer for new Gripen E’s must have received a similar response.

See also: F-35 or Gripen (almost) free: a tempting offer for the Czech Republic

Logically, although more expensive to acquire, new aircraft are more cost-effective over their life cycle. But if their purchase is impossible in the present budgetary situation, the option for used aircraft, but still with many remaining flight hours and a live logistic train, upgraded with the same electronics and armament as the most modern fighters, may be a more than acceptable solution.

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