MANILA — For a naval force that is struggling hard to remedy decades of neglect that seriously eroded its capabilities to protect the country’s vast waters, 2019 has certainly proven to be a banner year for the Philippine Navy (PN) as it acquired several platforms and reached equipment milestones to carry out missions in safeguarding the nation’s seas with some measure of credibility.

Some of the milestones reached by the Navy during this period are the launch of two guided-missile frigates of the “Jose Rizal” class by South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries; delivery and commissioning of the two AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW-159 helicopters; completion of the delivery of the eight Hanwha Techwin amphibious assault vehicles and commissioning of three more Propmech constructed multi-purpose attack craft; and delivery of the LIG Nex1 “Blue Shark” torpedoes that will arm and give teeth to the two “Wildcat” anti-submarine helicopters now in PN service.

Also included on this list is the delivery of the South Korean-donated “Pohang”-class corvette, which the PN renamed the BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39), which will provide the country with its initial anti-submarine capability pending the delivery of the multipurpose “Jose Rizal” class frigates by next year.

Another milestone for the PN is the upgrading of the electronics and sensors suites of three former Hamilton-class cutters and now renamed the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar-class offshore patrol vessels.

With the arrival and pending deliveries of these assets, the PN has started on its regeneration path to make it more capable of defending Philippine waters.

Launching of first two multi-mission ‘Jose Rizal’-class frigates

Likely the most important milestone for the PN this year is the launching of the lead ship of its two missile-frigate order by South Korean shipbuilder HHI.

The launch for the lead ship, BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150), took place May 23 in Ulsan, South Korea.

BRP Jose Rizal. (Photo courtesy of Philippine Navy)

The ship, armed with an Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid main gun, an Aselsan SMASH 30mm remote-controlled secondary cannon, anti-submarine torpedoes and anti-air and ship missiles is expected to be delivered to the Philippines by April or May 2020.

During the launching ceremony for the ship, PN flag-officer-in-command, Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, called the country’s acquisition of the ship a “strategic move”.

“It is a strategic move as this ship will be the most (capable) in the PN due to its multiple capabilities,” he said.

The BRP Jose Rizal is also fitted with a Hanwha Systems’ Naval Shield combat management system (CMS) which integrates all shipboard sensors and weapons and decides on which is ideal to deal with any incoming threats.

Sea trials for the BRP Jose Rizal took place last November 23 to 27 in the open waters off Ulsan, Busan, and Mokpo in South Korea to measure its performance and general seaworthiness.

Lt. Commander Maria Christina Roxas said the sea trials are the last phase of construction prior to the frigate’s delivery to the Philippines.

Meanwhile, BRP Jose Rizal’s sister ship, BRP Antonio Luna (FF-151), was launched in the HHI shipyard in Ulsan, South Korea last November 8 and is expected to be delivered by September or October 2020.

The Philippines and South Korean shipbuilder HHI signed a PHP16-billion contract for two missile-armed frigates with another PHP2 billion set aside for its weapon systems and munition in October 2016.

Then Navy spokesperson Captain Jonathan Zata said these frigates will help secure the country’s maritime chokepoints or primary sea routes used for trade, logistics, and naval operations for all forms of threats.

“These frigates are built based on the Incheon/FFX-I/HDF-3000-type multi-purpose frigate of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), which offers increased operational performance and enhanced survivability,” he added.

The ships measure 351 feet long and 46 feet wide and have a maximum speed of 25 knots and can travel up to 4,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 15 knots and can sustain operational presence for 30 days.

It is also capable to withstand rough sea conditions up to Sea State 7 or waves of six to nine meters high.

“Each frigate has a complement of more than 100 officers and crew. It has a flight deck located at the stern with the ability to handle one maritime helicopter weighing up to 12 tons. Two rigid-hulled inflatable boats will be carried to conduct military and emergency operations at sea,” Zata said.

AW-159 ‘Wildcat’ anti-submarine helicopters

While the two “Jose Rizal”-class frigates are designed to be able to deal with hostile submarines, having airborne anti-submarine platforms like the AugustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW-159 “Wildcat” helicopters will greatly boost the capabilities of these ships to deal with intruding submersible vessels.

Incidentally, the PN’s first two AW-159 anti-submarine helicopters were delivered last May 7 and commissioned on June 17 during the Navy’s 121st founding anniversary which took place at Naval Base Heracleo Alano in Sangley Point, Cavite.

The aircraft were acquired for PHP5.4 billion including its munition, mission essential equipment and integrated logistic support.

It can be armed with rockets, machine guns, missiles, torpedoes, and depth charges and fitted with modern sonar systems for tracking down submarines.

The AW-159 (previously called the Future Lynx and Lynx Wildcat) is an improved version of the Westland Super Lynx military helicopter. The helicopter has been ordered for the Royal Navy and British Army.

The AW-159s will be based on the two “Jose Rizal”-class frigates which are expected to be delivered next year.

Empedrad said these helicopters will help the PN in securing the country’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) or primary maritime routes used for trade, logistics, and naval operations.

He also called the acquisition of these helicopters a “big leap” in the capability of the PN as it now has the ability to locate submarines passing through the Philippines’ SLOC for starters.

The PN chief added that the AW-159s are considered a piece of “top-of-the-line” equipment equipped with sonar for detecting submarines and weapons like torpedoes, which are capable of damaging or even sinking a submarine.

He said that with the country’s vast waters, more anti-submarine helicopters and sonar-equipped naval ships are needed to fully protect it.

Empedrad added that the sonar equipment of the AW-159s will give PN personnel a chance to train and use modern sonar equipment.

BRP Conrado Yap joins the fleet

Meanwhile, the BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39), the former “Pohang”-class corvette “Chungju” of the Republic of Korea Navy arrived in the Philippines last August 20 providing a welcome addition to the surface strength of the PN.

Empedrad said the vessel will greatly boost the Navy’s patrolling capabilities in protecting the country’s vast territorial waters.

Also, he thanked the South Korean government for its donation, adding that the PN will take care of the ship, considered as its most heavily-armed unit, and hopes that it will get two more “Pohang” class corvettes.

“Pohang”-class corvettes, especially those designated as Flight II, are optimized for anti-submarine warfare missions.

The ship is armed with two 76mm Oto Melara automatic guns, two Oto Breda 40mm light cannons, depth-charge racks, and two triple torpedo tubes and surveillance systems like radar and sonar.

BRP Conrado Yap was formally turned over and commissioned to the PN last August 5 during short ceremonies at Jinhae Naval Base in Changwon City, South Korea.

The corvette and her escort, the BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602) departed the South Korean facility last August 12 for their voyage home which ended early morning of August 18.

The ship measures 88.3 meters long, with a beam of 10 meters and a draft of 2.9 meters with displacement at 1,216 tons full load. It is rated for a crew of 118 personnel and can sustain operational presence for 20 days.

BRP Conrado Yap’s combined diesel or gas (CODOG) propulsion configuration of motor transport unit (MTU) diesel engines and LM2500 gas turbine with controllable pitch propellers (CPP) enable the ship to move to a maximum speed up to 32 knots to a distance of 4,000 nautical miles.

Del Pilar-class offshore patrol vessels get electronics upgrade

In line with the ongoing efforts to improve the capabilities of its existing surface assets, the PN through the DND has awarded the contract seeking to beef up the electronics capabilities of the three Del Pilar-class offshore vessels in service to Hanwha Systems Co., Ltd last August.

South Korean defense manufacturer Hanwha Systems Co., Ltd. was selected as the winning proponent for the Philippine Navy’s Del Pilar Class Frigate Upgrade Acquisition Project which seeks to beef up the ships’ electronic capabilities and make it more capable of patrolling and conducting inter-agency operations in the country’s territorial waters.

This was bared by the Department of National Defense (DND) in a Notice of Award (NOA) posted on its website.

“This is to inform you that the proposal of Hanwha Systems Co., Ltd. for the Del Pilar Class Frigate Upgrade Acquisition Project of the Philippine Navy, with a corresponding contract price of one billion three hundred four million two hundred thousand pesos (PHP1,304,200,000), is hereby accepted,” Lorenzana said in the Notice of Award, posted at the DND website, and addressed company representative Kim Baeknyun.

The Del Pilar Class Frigate Upgrade Acquisition Project has an approved budget of PHP1.54 billion which will be sourced from the Armed Forces of the Philippine Modernization Trust Fund.

The upgrade seeks to enhance the ships’ combat management systems, electronic support and sonar capability.

The Del Pilar-class ships are three former US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters and converted into frigates and then offshore patrol vessels.

These vessels are the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PS-15), BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) and the BRP Andres Bonifacio (PS-17).

These ships have a gross tonnage of 3,250 tons, a length of 378 feet, a beam of 43 feet, and a draft of 15 feet while its propulsion systems consist of two diesel engines and two gas turbine engines, giving it a top speed of 29 knots.

These vessels have a cruising range of 14,000 miles and have a sea and loiter time of 45 days and armed with a 76mm Oto Melara automatic cannon, 25mm and 20mm light cannons and .50 caliber machine guns.

More AAVs, MPACs for the fleet

Meanwhile, the PN’s capabilities to protect the country’s waters and land Marine troops were significantly boosted with the activation of four additional amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) and three more multi-purpose attack crafts (MPACs) last September 23.

Activation ceremonies took place at PN headquarters at Naval Station Jose Andrada in Roxas Boulevard, Manila.

Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was present during the event, said acquisition of these assets is part of the government efforts to ensure that the military will have adequate resources to carry out its mandate of protecting the country and its people.

“The presence of credible defense (is) not a means to war, but to achieve the much-desired peace, security and economic progress,” he added.

Also, the government has been focusing on its national security agenda by beefing up the military’s capabilities to allow it to respond to threats and defend the country’s freedom, peace and security, the DND chief said.

He added that the AAVs and MPACs are among the equipment needed to fulfill its mandate.

The first four AAVs were commissioned last June 17 at the 121st PN founding anniversary during ceremonies at Naval Base Heracleo Alano in Sangley Point, Cavite.

The AAVs were manufactured by South Korean defense manufacturer Hanwha Techwin.

The second batch of four arrived this August and had successfully completed their Technical Inspection and Acceptance Committee on the same month. The AAV contract is worth PHP2.42 billion.

These vehicles are armed with .50-caliber machineguns, 40mm grenade launchers, and smoke launchers, which will be used for amphibious landing operations.

These will be based aboard the two strategic sealift vessels of PN which are the BRP Tarlac (LD-601) and BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602).

Earlier, the PN said there are plans to acquire at least 16 more AAVs which will be deployed in the two additional strategic sealift ships the Navy is planning to acquire.

Meanwhile, the three MPACs will be armed with Spike-ER surface-to-surface missiles, potentially boosting the number of missile-armed craft of the PN to six.

These boats were also delivered early this August and are called the Mark III and have started construction in November last year.

“These brand new MPACs are in addition to the three missile-fitted fast crafts that historically ushered the PN into the missile age last year,” Roxas added.

With the addition of three more Mark III MPACs, the number of the said boats in the PN is now placed at 12, with six armed with Spike-ER missiles.

Empedrad added that at least 12 more MPACs are planned to be acquired during the Third Horizon of the Armed Forces of the Philippine Modernization which will run from 2023 to 2028.

Lorenzana said these MPACs are very ideal for addressing terrorism and piracy threats in the country’s southern waters due to its high speeds and heavy armament of missiles and automatic machineguns.

Possible acquisition milestones: the PN FAIC-M project

As this develops, Empedrad said four of the eight fast attack interdictor craft-missile (FAIC-M), being acquired to replace the aging maritime vessels tasked for maritime interdiction operations, will be constructed in the Philippines.

“The FAIC-Ms are important, we will be acquiring about eight, four will be outside the Philippines and the remaining four will be constructed at our naval shipyard (in Sangley Point, Cavite). (With this, we will have the capability) in the future to build our own ships,” he said during an interview late August.

He did not identify the proponent or interested bidders for the projects.

Four of the FAIC-M will be armed with non-line of sight of missiles (NLOS) and is intended to replace eight of the PN’s patrol killer mediums (PKMs) and fast-attack crafts being used for interception missions.

PKMs are medium-sized naval craft that functions as patrol boat generally armed with machineguns and cannons up to 25mm, 30mm and 40mm in caliber.

Earlier, the PN chief said President Rodrigo Duterte has given the green light for the acquisition of eight FAIC-Ms for PHP10 billion.

These vessels are designated as the “Tomas Batilo”-class patrol boats, of which there are still four in active service out of the eight acquired from South Korea in 1995.

Formerly these PKMs were operated by the Republic of Korea Navy and later transferred to the PN

These ships have a top speed of 33 knots and have a range of up to 600 nautical miles.

The FAIC-Ms will give the PN the capability to defend the key sea lines of communications (SLOCs), such as Mindoro, Balabac, Sibutu and Basilan Straits against conventional threats.

While operating in restricted waters, the FAIC-Ms can interdict surface threats and launch NLOS missiles safely using the surrounding littoral areas as maneuver space and cover.

Gov’t-to-gov’t procurement for OPVs

Meanwhile, Lorenzana said the proposed offshore patrol vessel (OPV) project, consisting of six ships worth PHP30 billion, will definitely go through government-to-government procurement.

“Yes, it will be on a G-2-G (Government-To-Government) mode of procurement,” he said during an interview late October.

Government-to-government is an advantage as it does not require a large capital outlay and has sovereign guarantee aside from the equipment being acquired much easier and faster.

And when asked if Australian defense contractor and shipbuilder Austal will be awarded the contract for the OPV project before the end of the year, the DND chief said negotiations are not yet finalized.

“We have not yet finalized the negotiation. Both sides are still discussing the details. No definite decision yet,” he added.

The OPVs are part of Horizon Two of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program and expected to replace the World War II corvettes and minesweepers still in PN service as of this time.

Six OPVs are expected to be acquired for the Navy once the contract is approved and Austal is planning to build the ships on its Balamban, Cebu shipyard.

The company is offering a larger version of its 80-meter Cape-class patrol vessels being used by the Royal Australian Navy and Australian Border Force.

Earlier, the DND chief said he might ask the Chief Executive to exempt the DND from the suspension of loans and grants from 18 countries that supported the Iceland-sponsored United Nations Human Right Council resolution calling for an investigation on the Philippines’ illegal drugs campaign.

Of the 18 countries covered with the suspension of loans and grants memorandum issued by the Chief Executive through Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea last August 27, the Philippines is known to source military equipment and items from four nations which include Australia, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Spain and Italy.

Items acquired from these countries include the AW-109 combat utility and AW-159 anti-submarine helicopters from Great Britain and Italy, and the C-295 medium transports from Spain.

French-made Scorpene submarine ideal for PH

Also, Lorenzana said the Scorpene diesel-electric submarine, which is produced by French defense contractor Naval Group (formerly DCNS), is appropriate for the Philippines’ requirement.

“It (Scorpene diesel-electric submarine) is a very good sub, appropriate for our needs,” he said.

Incidentally, the DND chief said he was able to get a first-hand look on the French-made submersible during his visit to France last week of November.

“Yes, we went to see the Scorpene,” Lorenzana confirmed to the PNA but did not give additional details.

The DND chief arrived in the Philippines after his trip to France nighttime of December 2.

Earlier, Lorenzana said the Scorpene is one of the submersibles being evaluated by the PN for its planned submarine arm.

The Scorpene-class submarine features a diesel and additional air-independent propulsion.

It can be armed with a variety of mines, torpedoes, and missiles for a variety of missions. It also has a top speed of 20 knots.

The DND chief added that should the PN submarine acquisition program pushed through, it will be acquired via government-to-government procurement.

“The submarine, if we finally decide to buy them, will be on a government-to-government procurement and under a loan so that we do not need a large upfront capital outlay,” he added in an earlier interview.

Aside from the French-made Scorpene, Lorenzana said the DND is looking at proposals made Russia, South Korea and Germany. (PNA)