By Pedro Uchi
Clark Airfield, PHILIPPINES (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino has approved the purchase of 44 billion pesos ($932.74 million) worth of military equipment to help boost maritime security capability as tensions simmer in the South China Sea, a senior defense official said on Saturday.
Defence Undersecretary Fernando Manalo made the announcement after the government received the first two of a dozen new South Korean-made light fighter jets to enhance the country's air defense capabilities.
Aquino authorized the multi-year contract to purchase two frigates, eight amphibious assault vehicles, three anti-submarine helicopters, two long-range patrol aircraft, three aerial radars, munitions for the fighters and close support planes, Manalo told reporters.
The FA-50 fighter trainers from South Korea were acquired by the Philippines for 18.9 billion pesos. Seoul has committed to deliver 10 more light fighters until 2017.
"We're glad we are back to the supersonic age," said Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, witnessing the transfer of the aircraft from Korean Aerospace Inc. <047810.KS> to the Philippine Air Force.
The Philippines has had no fighter capability since it mothballed its Vietnam War vintage F-5A/Bs in the mid-2000s. It has a few S-211 Italian trainer jets, acquired in the late 1980s.
"With these aircraft, our capability to guard maritime borders will be enhanced," an air force general told Reuters, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"Our response time will be quicker but we would need radar and communications to fully integrate our air defense systems."
The government has embarked on a five-year, 83 billion peso modernization program to improve its ability to defend its maritime borders against the creeping expansion of China in the South China Sea.
China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and is constructing military facilities, including airfields, ports and lighthouses.
The Philippines' ill-equipped armed forces are no match for those of China, despite receiving two cutters and coastal radar stations from the United States in 2011. Washington promised to deliver late next year another cutter and two C-130 planes.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea's 3.5 million sq km (1.35 sq miles) waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to at least parts of the area.
($1 = 47.1730 Philippine pesos)
(Writing By Manuel Mogato and Karen Lema; Editing by Kim Coghill)