MANILA The Philippines is to acquire a squadron of FA-50 fighters from South Korea in a deal worth $422 million (18.9 billion pesos), a senior Philippine defense official said on Friday, boosting its capability as tension simmers in the South China Sea.
Fernando Manalo, undersecretary of defense for finance, munitions, installations and materiel, said the government had reached an agreement with Korean Aerospace Industries Ltd. for 12 of the aircraft and would sign a contract before March 15.
"This is a very important project together with the frigate of the navy because of our objective of building a minimum credible defense," Manalo told reporters.
The Philippines has embarked on a five-year, 75 billion-pesos ($1.68 billion) modernization program to improve its capability to defend its maritime borders against the creeping expansion of China in the South China Sea.
In 2012, it lost control of the Scarborough Shoal and since May last year, China's vessels have been in the vicinity of the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed Spratlys, where Philippine troops are stationed on a grounded transport ship.
The Philippines' ill-equipped armed forces is no match for those of China despite receiving two cutters and coastal radar stations from the United States in 2011.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea's 3.5 million sq km (1.35 sq miles) waters. The sea provides 10 percent of the global fisheries catch and carries $5 trillion in ship-borne trade each year.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims, to at least parts of the sea.
Manalo said a team from South Korea came to the Philippines to negotiate the aircraft deal, agreeing to reduce by $500,000 the cost of spare parts and accepting a 15 percent downpayment from the government.
South Korea agreed to deliver the first two aircraft 18 months after the contract signing next month.
The Philippines has had no fighter capability since it mothballed all of its F-5A/Bs in the early 2000s. ($1 = 44.7575 Philippine pesos)
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel)