April 25, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Australia, Philippines scrambling to boost air forces

KAORI TAKAHASHI and MINORU SATAKE, Nikkei staff writers

SYDNEY/MANILA -- Australia and the Philippines are scrambling to boost their air forces in a bid to counter China's increasingly aggressive maritime advances into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

     Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Wednesday that his country will purchase a total of 72 F-35 fighter jets, 58 more than initially planned. The F-35 is a state-of-the-art fighter jet made in the U.S.

     The Philippines will procure 12 South Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets. The Southeast Asian country is also set to conclude a new military pact with the U.S. during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit there later this month.

Australia expanding

The Australian government has decided to procure an additional 58 F-35 fighter jets. The F-35 is a "fifth-generation" fighter that is difficult to track on radar because of its high stealth capability.

     Australia plans to procure a total of 72 F-35 fighter jets by 2023. The first 14 are to be delivered in 2018 and go into service in 2020.

     The F-35 procurement program costs 12.4 billion Australian dollars ($11.6 billion), making it one of Australia's biggest-ever military purchases.

     Prime Minister Abbott said that the F-35 procurement program will allow his country to maintain its military supremacy in the region over the next few decades.

     He also expressed the view that buying the F-35s will help strengthen Australia's alliance with the U.S. and boost defense cooperation with countries such as Japan and South Korea.

     The massive F-35 purchase program has sparked a national controversy as Australia is now facing the challenge of restoring its fiscal health following the end of its resources boom.

     Abbott said at a press conference on Wednesday that the money for the F-35 fighter jets has already been set aside under a long-term plan and will not come out of any new budgets.

     Abbott also said that his government has decided to acquire 58 more F-35 fighter jets to prepare for contingencies. He did not elaborate, apparently out of consideration to relations with China, now Australia's largest trading partner.

Philippines -- up from zero

The Philippine government signed a contract in March to purchase 12 South Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets for 18.9 billion pesos ($422 million).

     The Philippine military currently possesses no fighter jets.

     When China hinted last year that it might establish an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, the Philippines saw exposed its inability to cope with violations of its air space by foreign military planes.

     The governments of the U.S. and the Philippines are set to conclude a new military pact during Obama's visit to the Southeast Asian country later this month.

     The U.S. withdrew its military forces from the Philippines by 1992 following the end of the Cold War. The stationing of foreign troops in the Philippines is currently banned under the nation's constitution.

     The new military pact will allow U.S. forces the joint use of military bases in the Philippines, virtually clearing the way for the U.S. to station its troops there again.