(Updated April 12, 2016. See bottom of the page for the complete revision history)
The good old days, when the PhAF were still flying F-8 Crusaders. Seems like a long, long time ago now.
One issue that has always bothered me is the fact that in the past, we did buy a LOT of advanced aircraft starting in the mid-1960s, and when I say “a lot”, I mean around 62 aircraft, or over five dozen fighter aircraft like the F-5A/B Freedom Fighter (37 aircraft) and F-8H Crusader (25 aircraft) fighter aircraft. And yet, if you look at our Air Force today, not a single one of them is still flying.
True, the F-8 has long been retired from all of the world’s air forces, but the F-5 is still being flown by at least half a dozen air forces in the world today, including our close neighbors Thailand and Singapore. Also consider the fact that in some other branches of the our Armed Forces like the Philippine Navy, for example, they still have nine 68-year old World War Two relic ships floating around, still doing decent patrol duty for the Navy.
It’s not the fault of our Philippine Air Force, it’s just that advanced aircraft are just harder and more expensive to maintain because they are more complex and sophisticated, and have limited lifespans set by the manufacturer after which they will have to be refurbished.
There is an alternative to aircraft when it comes to providing air defense capability, and that is thru the use of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). However, they are not perfect systems, they do have their own limitations as well. Despite that, I think it’s worthwhile to try and weigh in on the merits and demerits of both fighter aircraft and SAM systems.
‘Pros and Cons’
Let’s try to enumerate the pros and cons between Fighters and SAMs on each specific area to get a general picture of each system’s strengths and weaknesses:
* Area Coverage – This is no contest, as aircraft can cover much bigger areas than SAMs. The best western long-range or Area Air Defense SAMs like the land-based MIM-104 Patriot missile or the ship-based SM-6 SAM can cover only an area within a 150-250 km radius at best, while fighters can cover at least twice that range, even much more if armed with fuel tanks and/or have aerial refuelling capability.
* Flexibility – Again the fighter excels at this as Multi-Role Aircraft like the FA-50 can be used as both an OFFENSIVE and DEFENSIVE weapon, whereas SAMs are just DEFENSIVE weapons. Aircraft can do multiple jobs, like sink ships, shoot down other planes, or attack land targets, while SAMs can only be used to shoot down other missiles or aircraft. SAMs have to wait for the opponent to come to it, while aircraft can bring the fight to the enemy and dictate when and where the fight will be held.
* Vulnerability – Fighters are vulnerable in that they are only limited to airfields, which are stationary, can be mapped, attacked and destroyed. SAMs, on the other hand, whether they are land or sea-based, can hide almost anywhere in the country, giving them a much, much wider area where they can roam around and hide. Their mobility means it is hard to determine their exact location at any given time, making them a lot less vulnerable to attacks. Hence the advantage goes to the SAMs.
Here fighter aircraft are at an extreme disadvantage. They do strenous maneuvers that puts a lot of load and stress on their WINGS, AIRFRAMES and ENGINES, thereby accelerating wear and reducing their lifespans. These then need to be replaced after a certain number of flight hours specified by the manufacturer, no ifs or buts about it. If one of them fail, the aircraft might not fly at all, or worst fly and fail in the air, possibly causing the death of its pilot or pilots. In a way, you could call aircraft as CONSUMABLES as their lifespans get reduced every time you use them.
The mobile platforms of SAM systems also wear out, like tires or tracks, brakes, and Diesel engines. However, these parts are not anywhere near as sophisticated as wings, airframes or engines of an aircraft, and thus they much cheaper to replace. Besides, if something happens to a SAM platform, it simply becomes immobile, while the SAM itself can still be used. It doesn’t have to fall from the sky like an airplane if its parts wear out.
But SAMs are not maintenance-free also, their explosive warheads, rocket propellants and even some of its electronic components do have certain SHELF LIVES, meaning they can only be stored after a certain amount of time, which is typically between 10-15 years, depending on the system. After that, they will have to be refurbished and recertified so that they are guaranteed to function for another 10-15 years.
HOWEVER, there is a big difference between the prices of refurbishing aircraft and refurbishing missiles. Below are samples of Service Life Extension prices for United States Air Force (USAF) fighter aircraft. The high costs of refurbishments of these aircraft reflect their sophisticated nature, and refurbishments for simpler aircraft will be lower:
– F/A-18 aircraft at USD 26 million each
– F-16 aircraft at USD 9.4 million each
In contrast, below are samples of re-certifications of missiles in the United States’ Armed Forces inventory. Note that the Patriot and Tomahawk missiles are some of the largest, heaviest and most sophisticated tactical missiles in the world, and refurbishments / recertifications of smaller, lighter and less sophisticated missiles may even be cheaper:
– 300 Patriot PAC-2 missiles at USD 433k each
– 172 Tomahawk missiles at USD 197.7k each
Hence, from the above figures, we can see that missile recertifications costs only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars while fighter aircraft refurbishments run in the millions of dollars each. Put it another way, fighter aircraft refurbishments costs anywhere from 22 to 131 times the costs of recertifying missiles. Hence, in terms of maintainability, SAM systems are much cheaper and therefore more maintainable than fighter aircraft.
‘Initialy Buying Costs’
Below are samples of costs of fighter aircrafs bought recently. Note that the are “Package” prices, meaning they include a lot of other stuff as well like Training, Logistics, maybe some Weapons, etc.:
– F-16C Block 50/52+, Greece, USD 3.1 Billion, 40 aircraft at USD 77.5 Million each
– F-16C Block 50/52+, Pakistan, USD 3 Billion, 36 aircraft at USD 83.3 Million each
– F-16C Block 50/52+, Egypt, USD 3.2 Billion, 24 aircraft at USD 133.3 Million each
– Gripen E, Switzerland, USD 3.1 Billion, 22 aircraft at USD 140.9 Million each
– Gripen E, Sweden, USD 3.2 Billion, 22 aircraft at USD 145.4 Million each
On the other hand, below are samples of Package costs of SAM systems bought recently:
– Patriot, Kuwait, four sets with 60 missiles at USD 1.05 billion each
– Patriot, Turkey, 13 sets with 72 missiles at USD 600 million each
– Patriot, Qatar, 11 sets with 1,014 missiles at USD 900 million each
– SPyDer, India, 18 sets at USD 55.55 million each
From the above figures, we can see that top end SAM Systems like the Patriot costs much more than aircraft by a factor of 4-13 times. Smaller systems like the SPyDer are cheaper, but with this you get much less range and capability also. Note that I did not even include in the list the estimated price of the FA-50 Golden Eagles we are trying to buy, which would be at around USD 38 million each if Korea Aerospace Industries accepts our budget for them. Thus, you could say that in general, SAM Sytems do tend to be more expensive initially compared to fighter aircraft.
To summarize the pros and cons of each system based on the above items, first for fighter aircraft: Fighter aircraft have can cover a much larger area, and they are also flexible in that they can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes. In general, they are also cheaper than SAM systems. However, aircraft are consumables and have high maintainance costs over long periods, and are more vulnerable to attack since they are limited to airfields.
SAM systems are more expensive in general in terms of initial costs, and cover only relatively small areas. They can also only be used for defensive purposes. However, they are cheaper to maintain in the long run, and are much more survivable than fighter aircraft because of their mobility, having the ability to position themselves almost anywhere in the country as long as they can be logistically provided for.
Given our problem of maintaining fighter aircraft in the past, despite their higher initial buying costs SAM systems do offer much lower maintenance costs compared to fighter aircraft, indicating that we should be able to maintain them better in the long run. However, because of their shortcomings, we will still need fighter aircraft to complement SAMs whenever they can.
That way we can have fighter aircraft with all their inherent advantages for primary air defense, and SAMs as backup. In case we will have problems maintaining fighter aircraft again in the future, we will still have limited air defense capability if can maintain the SAMs rather than having no credible air defense capability like we have now.
My opinion is that we should continue trying to get the FA-50 Golden Eagle aircraft for our air force, and at the same time go ahead with the planned acquisition of SPyDer SAM systems that the Philippine Army was looking into recently. I think this would be a good combination for the overall defense of our country against aerial threats.
^ List of former aircraft of the Philippine Air Force,
^ RIM-174 Standard ERAM,
^ The Art Of Aging Effectively,
^ India begins refurbishing its missile stockpile,
^ Evaluating the Desirability of Navy F/A-18E/F Service Life Extension Programs (SLEPs),
^ F-16 Service Life,
^ Saudi Arabia – PATRIOT PAC-2 Guided Enhanced Missiles (GEM) Recertification,
^ Raytheon Gets $34.3M Order to Recertify 172 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles,
^ Comparing the Viper Block 50/52+ versus the Gripen E – July 2013 Part Three,
^ Kuwait ordered 60 PATRIOT Advanced Capability (PAD-3) Surface-to-Air Missile,
^ US to sell Turkey Patriot missiles in $7.8 billion deal,
^ Qatar – PATRIOT Missile System and Related Support and Equipment,
^ India to buy Rafael’s Spyder missile systems in $1 billion deal,
(1) September 23, 2013: Originally posted
(2) April 12, 2016: Made Grammar corrections, updated the End Notes format to the latest standard.