One thing about having an active insurgency in our midst is that we can at least use our weapons in actual combat conditions. Of course that is not necessarily something to celebrate about, but just trying to make the most out of a bad situation.
Like in the case of the FA-50PH Fighting Eagles that we bought from the South Korean company Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), for example. Out of all the countries that has bought the FA-50 and its variants, the Philippines is the first and so far the only country to have used it in real combat.
Iraq has started receiving and flying their T-50IQ aircraft (a variant of our FA-50PH) early this year,1 and aside from us it is possible that they too will get to see their T-50IQ in action.
’Baptism of Fire’
But it did take awhile for our air force to send our FA-50PHs into the combat zone. Ever since they were first delivered in December 2015, people have been asking around in Social Media about when it was going on to be used against the insurgents.
It wasn’t after more than a year later of training with the aircraft, in January 2017 when they finally bought it into combat in support of military operations against the local Maute-ISIS terrorist group that tried to take control of the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur.2
On one of its first combat missions, the FA-50PH’s bombs reportedly caused the deaths of 15 of the terrorists and also wounded the terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon. But back then there were no actual footages of the FA-50PH in action, mainly just reports from the media about it.3
’The Marawi Crisis’
It would take another four months and in a bigger stage of battle, on another attack by the same Maute-ISIS group for the FA-50PH to finally make its video debut in combat, in what is known as the Marawi Crisis.
A group of the terrorists, later to be estimated at around 500 strong,4 started the siege by occupying key areas and burning down establishments in the city of Marawi in Mindanao on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 after a joint operation by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) failed to capture their leader Hapilon.5
During the course of the next couple of weeks, several videos of the FA-50PH flying over the city was shown, but one of them stood out in particular, and it is this video released by reporter Raffy Tima on June 6, 2017.6
’Level Flight Bombing’
The video showed an FA-50PH on a bombing run, and what surprised me about it was how the FA-50PH conducted the bombing: It seems to have released its bomb in “Level Flight”, meaning that it flew in a straight line with its wings level.
And It was flying at a relatively low altitude, low enough for it and the bomb that it dropped to be captured by the camera’s limited zoom capability.
This is in contrast with the diving attacks made by our other fixed wing combat aircraft, like shown in another video by reporter Chiara Zambrano released last June 1, 2017 taken also there in Marawi.
In that video as shown below, an OV-10 Bronco of the Philippine Air Force executed a very steep dive, probably on around a 45 degree dive angle as it dropped its bomb towards the target.7
’Level vs. Dive Bombing’
Now back in the days before the advent of digital computers in aircraft, the Level Flight type of bombing was used only under certain conditions since they could never get much accuracy out of it. The reason is because when a bomb is released in level flight, it follows a more complex trajectory as it flies and more factors end up affecting its flight.
However, modern aircraft like the FA-50PH have the necessary advanced Aviation Electronics (Avionics) like Weapons Aiming Computers (WAC) and Heads Up Displays (HUD) that allow them to make the necessary computations to compensate for most of the factors that affect the bombing process, thereby greatly improving their ability to bomb accurately even while in level flight.8
The F-16 Fighting Falcon from which our FA-50PH is derived, for example, is capable of being as accurate as Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) even when using only Conventional Bombs, with a Circular Error Probability (CEP) of between 3-11 m with its best Pilots flying at optimal conditions and using the same advanced avionics.9
Note that older, fixed-wing attack aircraft don’t usually use this type of bombing if they want to hit a target with pinpoint accuracy since they don’t have the required avionics for it. They need instead to use Dive Bombing in order to do so.
Dive Bombing allows for a more accurate bombing because the bombs follow a simpler, straighter path to the target, thereby having much less factors that can affect its flight.
This level flight type of bombing with low-drag conventional bombs at low altitude means that the FA-50PH is likely using either the Continuously Computed Release Point (CCRP) or the Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) mode of weapons delivery.
The way CCRP works is that first, the Pilot designates where he wants the weapon to impact on the ground. This can be done by a number of methods like using the aircraft’s HUD, Ground Mapping Radar (GMR), or thru a Forward Air Observer (FAO), or using a Targeting Pod, etc.
The WAC then processes all available information and presents a symbol on the HUD to guide the pilot when and where to release the weapon so it will hit the target. With CCIP, on the other hand, the WAC shows on the HUD where the weapon will impact. This means that you need to do is line up the projected impact point on the target and then release the bomb.
Unlike CCIP where you need to be in view of the target, CCRP allows bombing at Night or Bad Weather since you don’t necessarily need to see the target when releasing the weapon. CCIP bombing in level flight is only possible at low enough altitudes where the target is can be seen over the nose of the aircraft.
From the video, the bomb is far enough so we can’t see if it is a Conventional Bomb or a PGM. Some PGMs like the Mk 82 version of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) is virtually indistinguishable from afar from its conventional counterpart.
However, our Air Force has repeatedly denied that they have PGMs in their inventory, once way back in 2012 when Rappler released an article about it;11 And again recently,12 which was in conflict with what the Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said earlier.13
Now a couple of picture and video evidence does show the Paveway Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) mounted on our OV-10 aircraft,14 but that was from some years back, and they may have already been used up and ran out over the years.
At any rate, if we don’t have PGMs, then the bomb that our FA-50PH dropped in the video above is a conventional one, and credit our Pilots and the FA-50PH’s advanced avionics for being able to hit an urban target accurately when using level flight bombing at low altitude and a CCRP or CCIP bomb mode delivery.
Our FA-50PHs has already been bloodied in combat many times over, and as a sort of consolation for all these wars we are seeing, both it and our Pilots are now combat veterans, something that few Air Forces around the world have the distinction of having.
Back in 2015 just before the FA-50PH first arrived, I did write about its anticipated bombing capability,15 and it is heartening to finally see it in action.
It is great to see how far our Air Force’s capability has grown with the purchase of just one type of advanced aircraft, so all the more reason to continue the modernization of our AFP so we can maintain and expand on that qualitative edge we have on our internal enemies.
We still have a long way to go, though. We need more advanced aircraft with similar Air to Ground attack capabilities to the FA-50PH, we need PGMs if we don’t have them, and we need to have a lot of both aircraft and PGMs.
Congratulations to our FA-50PH for its baptism of fire.
Iraq begin flying Korean T-50 trainer jets,
FA-50PHs blooded in Butig combat mission –Año,
TV Patrol: DND, kinumpirma ang ugnayan ng ISIS at teroristang grupo sa Pilipinas,
Raising estimate, DND says 500 militants involved in Marawi,
TIMELINE: Maute attack in Marawi City,
Raffy Tima’s FA-50PH Bombing Video,
Chiara Zambrano’s OV-10 Bombing Video,
World of Warplanes Bombing Tactics and Techniques Guide,
- From the book “Modern Fighting Aircraft: F-16” by Dough Richardson, page 56-59 ↩
New-generation trainer/attack Alpha Jet flight-tested,
US smart bombs used in Sulu attack,
AFP says there are no PGMs in its inventory, only pilots trained in precision air strikes,
‘WE RAN OUT OF PRECISION MISSILES’ Conventional bomb killed 11 soldiers in Marawi airstrike — Lorenzana,
Philippine Air Force OV-10 with Paveway Bomb,
Welcoming the FA-50PH Fighting Eagle – Facts and Trivia,