China's increased assertiveness over territorial claims to the South China Sea is leading the Philippines to embark on the biggest military procurement program it has ever undertaken.

Both houses of the Philippine congress have approved the budget and acquisition process for the acquisition of 12 jet trainer/surface-attack aircraft; six close-air support aircraft; two long-range maritime patrol aircraft; two light-lift and three medium-lift fixed-wing military transports; three ground-based radars; and 10 attack helicopters. All will be assigned to the Philippine air force, says one of its officials.

The country's assistant secretary of defense in charge of acquisitions, installations and logistics, Patrick Velez, says all these procurements are high-priority and that the defense department hopes to begin taking deliveries next year. Congress has approved these specific acquisitions under the first five years (2012-17) of a 15-year military modernization bill. The budget allocated for 2012-17 is at least 75 billion pesos ($1.8 billion).

The Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 is the front-runner to meet the requirement for the jet trainer/surface attack aircraft, Velez says. No contract has been signed yet because the T-50 acquisition must be approved by the Philippine government procurement policy board. He also says the T-50 has yet to achieve certification for medium-range operations—since it was initially developed as a jet trainer—and if it fails to achieve that, then “we may need to look at another platform.”

Velez says that for the close-air-support requirement, “at this stage, the Number One in the rankings is the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano.” Second is the Hawker Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, he says, followed by the Korea Aerospace Industries KT-1 and Aero Vodochody L-159.

In terms of maritime patrol, Philippine air force officials say the Indonesian Aerospace CN235 is a strong contender. It uses the Airbus Military Fully Integrated Tactical System, a series of displays and computers for processing the data and information from the aircraft's sensors. The main issue with this competition is the sensor suite, according to Velez. Besides the CN235, it is understood the other main contender is Raytheon, but it is unclear which platform it is proposing.

Indonesian Aerospace is the most likely candidate to meet the light, fixed-wing military transport aircraft requirement with its C212, Velez says. As for the medium-lift requirement, “it is a close competition between the Alenia C-27J and C295, although we already have approval from the president for the C-27J,” he says. Both congress and the president must approve military procurements.

The defense department is still assessing and welcoming bids to meet the requirement for three ground-based radar, Velez says. The air force official says the service is hoping the first radar can be delivered next year.

When asked about the requirement for 10 attack helicopters, Velez says, “that's not going to push through [so soon]. We have the budget. But the [Eurocopter] Fennec helicopter is no longer available.” Eurocopter had some Fennecs “ready and not yet used,” he says, but a deal for them will not come to pass. Velez says the Philippines was planning to buy 10 Fennecs, but because it now must to select another helicopter, the budget will probably cover only eight. The AgustaWestland AW109 and PZL W-3 Sokol are likely candidates, he says.

The air force has already ordered eight PZL W-3 Sokol utility helicopters, of which four have been delivered, and the rest will come by year-end, says the air force official. Originally, the air force planned to operate these as utility helicopters, but it configured them for search and rescue and is now seeking congressional approval to buy new utility helicopters, he says. The upgrade of 21 air force Bell UH-1H helicopters has been approved by the congress. Some will become Super Hueys, although there is no certainty that Bell will perform the modernization.

The Philippine military has traditionally focused on suppressing domestic Muslim insurgencies, but recently that has shifted to disputes with China over the South China Sea. In April, for example, Philippine navy vessel Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with two Chinese surveillance ships at the Scarborough Shoal, territory that both countries claim. The Gregorio del Pilar is an ex-U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter. In fact, much of the Philippine military's equipment is equipment once used by the U.S. armed services or hand-me-downs from other governments.