May 16 (Bloomberg) -- The Philippines may buy two squadrons of military jets for as much as $1.6 billion, President Benigno Aquino said, as the country pushes to modernize its defenses amid a territorial dispute with China.
The government could buy new training jets for between $400 and $800 million per squadron and upgrade the planes to fighters, Aquino told Bombo Radyo today. The seller would be a “progressive nation” and not the U.S., the Philippines’ main ally, he said. A squadron includes between 16 and 24 jets.
“It may be from Europe, or somewhere nearer,” Aquino told Bombo Radyo. “That’s what the Armed Forces of the Philippines is studying to make it more economical.”
Aquino’s administration has embarked on a plan to upgrade the country’s military, which currently has no viable fighter jets. The plan is part of efforts to better address external threats and territorial disputes, which include increased tension with China over disputed waters in the South China Sea that are rich in fish, oil and gas.
“The standoff with China made the issue of a credible external defense an urgent one,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said in a telephone interview in Manila. “There are various territorial issues for which you need a credible external defense, not just the shoal.”
In a May 4 interview with Bloomberg News, Aquino said the Philippines has focused on quelling insurgencies and lawlessness, and that its ability to respond to external threats “has been very, very severely diminished.”
China has become more assertive over its claims to the South China Sea, while the U.S., which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, has shifted its military posture toward the Asia-Pacific region.
The latest standoff, over a reef that the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal and China refers to as Huangyan Island, began in April when Chinese ships blocked the Philippines from inspecting Chinese fishing boats in the area. Aquino reiterated the Philippines’ claim on the reef in today’s radio interview.
“It’s our exclusive economic zone and we need to preserve our patrimony according to our constitution,” he said.
The Philippines plans to acquire 10 new helicopters and 21 refurbished ones this year for maritime surveillance, Aquino said in the May 4 interview.
The Philippines signed a five-year agreement with Italy earlier this year for the purchase of military hardware. Aquino didn’t specify today whether the money potentially spent on planes would be in addition to previous estimates for defense expenditures.
Defense Undersecretary Hernando Manalo said in January the nation aims to spend as much as 70 billion pesos ($1.6 billion) through 2020 to modernize its forces.