CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines (AFP) -- The Philippines took delivery of two South Korean-made FA-50 aircraft on Saturday, marking the country's return to supersonic fighter jet status after almost a decade, amid growing tensions with China.
The two new aircraft are the first of an order of 12 and signal a new readiness by Manila to assert itself militarily.
The two fighters, flown from Seoul by South Korean pilots, were met in Philippine airspace by two S211 jets which escorted them to the former US airbase of Clark where they were received by Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
"We're glad. We are finally back to the supersonic age," he told reporters as he inspected the "Golden Eagle" jets.
Gazmin has said the aircraft could serve as both trainers and fighters, and that among the areas they would be posted will be the western island of Palawan, the country's closest point to the South China Sea where the Philippines has a territorial dispute with China.
China claims most of the South China Sea even up to the coastline of its neighbours. Other countries have conflicting claims and the Philippines has been the most vocal in opposing China despite its overwhelming military superiority.
The cash-strapped Philippines, which is also battling internal communist and Muslim insurgencies, has long neglected external defence, relying on ageing ships and aircraft to patrol the disputed waters.
It retired the last of its supersonic fighter jets, US-made F-5 Freedom Fighters, in 2005 due to their age and since then has relied on propeller-driven planes and the Italian-made S211.
The S211s are intended for training new pilots and are not capable of supersonic flight. But the military has been forced to use them for other roles such as patrolling territory and conducting bombing missions on insurgents.
However, as the country's economy improved, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has been upgrading the military, acquiring two surplus frigates from the United States and new aircraft from different sources.