In celebration of the arrival of the Philippine Air Force’s (PhAF) FA-50PH Fighting Eagle, I decided to come up with this blog detailing some interesting facts and trivia about it. To start things off, the FA-50PH is the first BRAND NEW Fighter Aircraft procurement by the Republic of the Philippines in over 50 years, or half a century. The last time we bought brand such an aircraft was way back in 1962 under the Administration of President Diosdado Macapagal when we bought the F-5A Freedom Fighter. Between 1965 to 2015, we did buy more fighter aircraft like more F-5s and the F-8H Crusader, but these were all in second-hand refurbished condition.
Of course the FA-50PH is not really strictly a “Fighter Aircraft”, it is officially classified as an Advanced Jet Trainer or a Lead In Fighter Trainer, but it does have Combat as a SECONDARY capability, and while we are waiting to buy more capable Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) aircraft, these FA-50PHs will be pushed to conduct Combat missions and will be our main Combat aircraft on a temporary basis (or at least I hope it will only be temporary).
The arrival of these FA-50PH also means that after a decade we will have a more capable aircraft to defend our airspace. When the PhAF retired its F-5s in 2005, the defense of our airspace was relegated to the S-211, a Basic Jet Trainer that was woefully inadequate in that role, armed only with rockets and an improvised .50 caliber Gun Pod, with no radar or any sort of advanced combat Avionics.
The FA-50PH is the first FIXED WING COMBAT AIRCRAFT fitted with a Glass Cockpit in service with the PhAF. A “Glass Cockpit” means an aircraft cockpit that features flight instrument displays on electronic screens rather than the traditional style of analog dials and gauges. The FA-50PH though is not the first Fixed Wing Aircraft in service with the PhAF with a Glass Cockpit, that distinction belongs to the C-295M Transport Aircraft which the PhAF first received in March 2015. It is also not the first Combat Aircraft in the PhAF with a Glass Cockpit, that honor belongs to the AW109AH Light Attack Helicopter that were commissioned around the middle of this year.
The FA-50PH is the first AIRCRAFT EVER armed with an Electric Gatling Gun in service with the PhAF. Previous PhAF fighter aircraft used only single-barreled cannons, like the M39 Revolver Cannon on the F-5 and the Colt Mk 12 Cannon on the F-8. The PhAF did get a couple of AC-47 Spooky Gunships in the 1970s, but picture evidence shows that these were armed with Browning M2 .50 Caliber Machine Guns rather than Gatling Guns.
The FA-50PH uses the A-50 Gun System (A-50GS) which is unique in that only the TA-50/FA-50 family of aircraft uses them as of now. It is made by the American company General Dynamics and is a smaller and lighter version of the M61A2 Vulcan Gatling Gun used in most American fighter aircraft like the F-15 and the F-16. The A-50GS has three barrels that are rotated during firing, and it has a firing rate of 50 rounds per second. It has caliber of 20 x 102 mm, ammunition capacity is 204 rounds, and the cannon itself only weighs 134 kg. Its maximum effective range against aerial targets is the same as that of the M61 which is around 1.5 km.
The FA-50PH is the first AIRCRAFT EVER equipped with a Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) in service with the PhAF. An MMR is simply a radar designed to operate in more than one mode with quick switching between these modes. The PhAF’s F-86D Sabredog, F-5As (these do not have radars but were reportedly fitted with the AN/APQ-153 radars used on F-5E Tiger II aircraft) and F-8Hs had radars, but these were strictly for air to air applications only. Our Air Force had never had this MMR capability before, whether it be in a Fighter or Surveillance Aircraft.
The FA-50PH’s radar is the ELM-2032 MMR which is made by the Israeli firm Elta, and can be used for Air-to-Air (A2A), Air-to-Ground (A2G) and Air-to-Sea (A2S) modes. The ELM-2032 is so advanced that in the A2G and A2S modes, it is capable of High Resolution Imaging (or what’s called as Synthetic Aperture Radar capability) which means that it can create images of the Landscape or of objects like Vehicles or Ships and display this to the Pilot.
This important because it helps the pilots IDENTIFY targets, and then TRACK them on the ground or on the sea. It can also then determine the target’s DISTANCE, how fast it is moving and in which direction. These data can then be fed into a Ballistic Computer enabling the FA-50PH to deliver its weapons (i.e., Guns, Rockets, Missiles, Bombs, etc.) more accurately to the target.
In the A2A mode, it is estimated that the ELM-2032 can track a mid-sized fighter aircraft with a Radar Cross Section (RCS) of 5 m^2 at a range of 54 km. Of course, the bigger the aircraft and the bigger its RCS, the farther the ELM-2032 can track it, reportedly up to 148 km. In the A2G ground mode, ELTA claims that the radar can detect slow moving targets on the ground up to 148 km while in the A2S mode it can detect and track very large and relatively slow moving ships up to 296 km away. These figures though seem a little bit too optimistic for me and in reality the actual figures is likely to be much shorter.
The FA-50PH will be the first FIXED WING Strike Aircraft equipped with Ballistic Computers (BC) for the A2G role. It is NOT, however, the first aircraft in service with the PhAF equipped with BCs for A2G, that distinction belongs to the AW-109AH that the PhAF pushed into service a couple of months ago. The previous fixed wing aircraft used by the PhAF for the Strike role like the F-5s, OV-10s, SF-260s, etc. only had manual sights that the Pilots had to set for a particular Speed, Angle of Attack and Altitude. They then had to drop their weapons while flying under these fixed set of factors. If they are to change one factor, like the speed to go faster or slower, for example, then they will have to manually adjust the sights again to compensate for that change.
This of course is not so accurate as you can’t really fly the aircraft to these factors precisely at the same time, there will always be some difference here and there and that will result in a wide error during bombing. With a BC, on the other hand, all these factors plus more like the distance of the target, its direction and speed, the predicted ballistic trajectory of the bomb/rocket/bullet, even the outside air temperature and pressure, etc. are automatically computed and the CORRECT AIMING POINT is presented to the pilot in Real Time. This then contributes significantly to the ability of the FA-50PH to deliver its weapons accurately.
There are various modes used by manufacturers to present to the pilot the correct aiming point, but two of the most common are the Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) and the Continuously Computed Release Point (CCRP). CCIP computes the approximate trajectory of the weapon and shows you where to aim on the Heads Up Display (HUD). CCRP can be used a night or bad weather where a target can be designated on either a predetermined map, or from a map generated from the FA-50s radar. The computer then indicates on the HUD where to release the bomb.
Here is an actual video of the HUD during an actual bombing using CCIP. Just put the CCIP Reticle, that big circle that popped out of the bottom of the HUD on the target, then release, and that’s it …
The FA-50PH is the first FIXED WING COMBAT AIRCRAFT with Fly-By-Wire (FBW) Flight Control System in service with the PhAF. It is not the first Fixed Wing Aircraft with FBW, though, that honor belongs to the C-295 which arrived earlier. FBW means a system that uses electronic signals and computers to help control the aircraft, and this has become the standard for almost all new aircraft nowadays because of its many advantages, among which is STABILITY as the computers that help the aircraft fly makes many calculations and adjustments per second, allowing for a more stable flight.
Another advantage is SAFETY since the computers will always be trying to help keep the aircraft within flight parameters and keep the aircraft from going out of control. For combat aircraft, there is the additional advantage of MANEUVERABILITY as the Pilot can keep pushing the aircraft to fly as close to its maximum flight envelope as much as possible without exceeding it.
’Air to Ground Bombing Accuracy’
There will be a lot of hype about the FA-50PH’s ability to use Smart Weapons like Laser or Global Positioning System (GPS) guided bombs, but one thing I am anticipating is its BOMBING ACCURACY even with the use of “Dumb” or Unguided weapons like ordinary Bombs, Rockets, or Gun Pods. This is due to first, the SAR capability of its radar and its BC as discussed above. Another would be its good heritage as it was derived from the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which had proven to be a very stable A2G platform, reportedly capable of flying “hands off” (without the pilot touching the joystick) even at a speed of 600 knots and an altitude of only 30 m from the ground.
When the F-16 first entered service in the 1970s, its AN/APG-66 Radar was also among the first MMRs to first enter service, and in combination with BCs and the F-16’s stability, it enabled Pilots to bomb accurately with an average Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 11 m, while the best Squadrons were able to achieve an even better CEP of only 3 m even when using “Dumb” bombs. “CEP” is a measure of a weapons accuracy and is defined as the radius of a circle around the aiming point whose boundary is where 50% of the rounds are expected to land.
Now people might say, “3-11 m CEP? That’s as good as using Smart Weapons already, so why not just use Dumb Bombs all the time, then?” Well that’s because the bombing accuracy of aircraft like the F-16 when using ordinary bombs are also dependent on the Speed and Altitude it is flying. When it is flying at OPTIMAL conditions like as low an altitude and as slow a speed as possible, then its accuracy is superb. HOWEVER, if the enemy has Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and/or Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), then the aircraft will have to fly faster and/or higher in order to have a better chance of survival, and when it does, its bombing accuracy will suffer.
The great thing with Smart Weapons is that they allow a wider envelope of flight characteristics and STILL maintain its accuracy. A plane can thus fly higher and faster to evade AAA and/or SAMS and yet still be able to hit its target well. Now our Insurgents and Rebels are not known to have any effective Anti-Air weapons, they almost exclusively use just Small Arms against aircraft, and so our FA-50PH can use ordinary bombs at optimal flight characteristics and deliver highly accurate bombing runs. Against enemies with better Anti-Air Weapons though, like external armies, then we will need to use Smart Weapons.
Just a word of caution though to our upcoming pilots of the FA-50PH. One thing about these High Performance Aircraft with FBW Flight Control Systems is their ability to pull Gs almost instantly. An aircraft like the FA-50PH is expected to be able to go from zero to eight Gs within just HALF A SECOND, and when it does, a less prepared individual will likely Black Out due to the blood rushing down to the feet.
Of course I expect our FA-50PH Pilots to be very physically fit and well prepared for this, and they do have their “G-Suits” to help them negate the effects of a Blackout, but even these might not be enough, and it won’t harm to take extra precautions, especially during Air Combat Maneuvers (ACMs) when the aircraft starts pulling Gs successively one after the other. The ideal pilot would be someone that is short and stocky as this gives him more muscle mass in the middle of the body that could help delay the onrushing of blood to his feet (and thus delay blackouts). It also helps if the individual has a blood pressure bordering on the high side as again this helps delay blackouts.
Fighter Pilots in the USAF are reportedly discouraged from doing activity that lowers the blood pressure, like running Long Distance Marathons, for example. They are instead encouraged to go the Gym and build up their Core Muscles, particularly their ABDOMINAL MUSCLES that help resist blackouts.
’Fly in the Ointment’
The only major fly in the Ointment with the arrival of the FA-50PHs is that they do not have the brand new weapons intended for use with them, like the AIM-9L/M Sidewinder and the AGM-65 Maverick missiles. The initial reason was there was a delay in the approval for the budget for their purchase which PNoy only signed early September of this year, and then subsequently the Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that it will take another two to three years for their purchase to be completed. This means that if some emergency happens in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and we are forced to send our FA-50PHs there, they will not have the best available weapons for them.
The FA-50PH can still fire Rockets and launch ordinary Bombs, and it also has its A50GS Gatling Gun. However, there is also an issue regarding the ammunition for the A50GS, I do hope that there are newer stocks of them (no more than a decade old) because old ammunition might have reliability problems, especially since they will be operating at the high altitude conditions that the FA-50PH operates in. The danger here is that there is a possibility that some of these old ammo could suffer an explosive malfunction which could in turn damage our precious new A50GS.
The AFP does have a number of 20 mm cannons in service, but out of these only the F-5’s M39 Cannon are compatible with the A50GS’ 20 x 102 mm caliber ammunition. The other 20 mm cannons like the Oerlikon Mk 16 used by the Navy or the Colt Mk 12 used on the F-8s uses the 20 x 110 mm RB and 20 x 110 mm USN ammunition respectively, which are not compatible with the A50GS. Hopefully the US or South Korean Air Force can spare us a couple of hundred 20 x 102 mm ammo at least initially only, until we can buy ours.
We do have the old AIM-9B Sidewinders bought with the F-5s, but they are not likely to be still operational as they are around 50 years old already, and even if we were able to somehow refurbish them so they can still be used, they are obsolete weapons with too many limitations and weaknesses. For one it can only be launched at a maximum load factor of only 2Gs, meaning the aircraft can’t make a tight turn and launch it. It also easily locks on to other heat sources like the Sun or Clouds, and has a short range of only around 5 km.
The lack of advanced weapons means that the FA-50PH won’t be able to achieve its full potential, and would be suitable only for internal threats. Against external threats, the FA-50PH would still be better than the S-211, but overall it will only be marginal without more modern air to air missiles. There is also an element of uncertainty as we are not really sure if the next Administration will indeed buy the required missiles for these aircraft.
In summary, in terms of “firsts”, the FA-50PH in the PhAF is the:
– First Brand New Aircraft with Fighter Capability bought in 50 years;
– First Fixed Wing Combat Aircraft equipped with a Glass Cockpit;
– First Aircraft ever armed with an electric Gatling Gun;
– First Aircraft ever equipped with a Multi-Mode Radar;
– First Fixed Wing Strike Aircraft equipped with Ballistic Computers.
– First Fixed Wing Combat Aircraft equipped with a Fly-By-Wire Flight Control System.
A decade after the PhAF retired its F-5s, we will have better Air Defense capability, and with the combination of its F-16 heritage, Multi-Mode Radar and Ballistic Computer, I expect it to have an unprecedented bombing accuracy capability even when armed with Dumb Munitions. Our Pilots will need to ensure that they have sufficient physical conditioning to be able to function well with the FA-50PH’s high performance capability. The lack of advanced weapons for these aircraft is a big letdown, I hope that the next Administration will correct it.
Welcome to the FA-50PH Fighting Eagle as we usher in a significant page in our history …
^ Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer Database,
^ PAF retires F-5 after 40 years of service,
^ Philippine AS-211 Warrior Improvements – September 2013,
^ Airbus hands over first C295 to Philippine Air Force,
^ PH Air Force gets 10 brand new choppers,
^ The A-50 Gun System,
^ R2D2 with Attitude: The Story of the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS),
^ ELM-2032 Radar,
^ Smarter (and Simpler) Radar in Harpoon,
^ From the book “Modern Fighting Aircraft: F-16” by Dough Richardson, page 56-59
^ From the book “Hornet” by Orr Kelly, Chapter 8 – “A Deep-Seated Drive to Kill”
^ Acquisition of much-needed military equipment given green light –DND,
^ PAF readies airbases for FA50 jets; munitions to wait 3 years,