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Philippine Navy Struggles With Modernization Plans

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The second 378-foot, 2,300-ton former U.S. Coast Guard cutter for the Philippines, BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF 16) (ex-U.S. CGC Dallas) set sail for Manila from Charleston, S.C., on June 10, 2013 – a little over a year after the vessel was transferred to the Philippine navy (Hukbong Dagat Ng Pilipinas).

The warship is expected to cross the Panama Canal – a first for a Filipino warship – as well as make port calls at San Diego, California, Hawaii, and Guam en route to the Philippines. According to Philippine navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory G. Fabic, the warship is expected to arrive in the Philippines in early August, followed by a formal induction into the Philippine fleet in September after receiving a haze gray paint scheme.

While the acquisition of the Hamilton-class cutters fills a much needed capability gap, the service also finds itself struggling with difficult choices as it strives to modernize its antiquated surface fleet.

The Philippine government paid approximately $15.6 million for the acquisition, refurbishment, and crew training package for the former Coast Guard cutter. After its transfer on May 22, 2012, Ramon Alcaraz underwent a refurbishment that included an engine change as well as installation of navigational radars and communications equipment. It is also slated to receive a Mk. 39 Mod 2 gun mount after its arrival in the Philippines, since an extended delivery timeline of 15 months precluded installation prior to the ship’s departure. While the ship was being refurbished its crew of 14 officers and 74 enlisted underwent intensive training with the U.S. Coast Guard at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Charleston. Upon completing its refit, BRP Ramon Alcaraz commenced sea trials off Charleston with its Philippine crew on May 20, 2013.

BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF 16)

The BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF 16), the newest vessel of the Philippine navy, leaves the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Charleston, S.C., following simple ceremonies attended by members of the Filipino community on June 10, 2013. Philippine Embassy photo by Elmer G. Cato

According to local media reports, it is likely that both Hamilton-class cutters will gain additional weapons like surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment as part of a combat systems upgrade in due course. The Philippine navy is “researching additional mission capabilities,” the Coast Guard said. The Hamilton-class cutters were at one time fitted with a hull mounted sonar as well as torpedo tubes during the height of the Cold War, so fitting ASW weapons is very feasible.

Speaking on the eve of the ship’s departure from Charleston, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. noted that the Ramon Alcaraz will complement the first 378-foot cutter BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (ex USCGC Hamilton, which was acquired in May 2011) and add to Philippine navy capabilities. “We look forward to further upgrading the capabilities of the Philippine navy,” said Ambassador Cuisia. In spite of their age – both Hamilton class cutters are 45+ years old and maintenance intensive – they are the only long endurance platforms with organic helicopter facilities in the perennially underfunded and operationally overstretched Philippine navy. Crucially, these warships assume greater significance given the ongoing tensions with China as a result of territorial disputes.

“We do not want to see a confrontation and we are hoping that diplomatic efforts would ease these tensions. We are for peace and for the stability of the region, but at the same time, we are prepared to defend what is ours,” said Ambassador Cusia.

In any case, the Philippine navy is in dire need of modern surface combatants, and it remains to be seen if the government’s rhetoric matches the outlay of funds toward the much needed naval modernization programs.

Officials at CG-922 (Office of International Acquisition Programs) say additional 378-foot cutters may be offered to the Philippine navy depending on when these platforms become available for decommissioning.

While the acquisition of the Hamilton-class cutters fills a much needed capability gap, the service also finds itself struggling with difficult choices as it strives to modernize its antiquated surface fleet.

BRP Humabon (PF 11)

Philippine navy ship BRP Humabon (PF 11), steams in formation during exercise Balikatan 2010 (BK 10), March 14, 2010. The Humabon is one of the oldest active warships in the world and previosuly served with the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. As the USS Atherton she was credited with sinking a German U-boat off the coast of Rhode Island in 1945. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, assured his support for the Philippine navy’s modernization plan as the service, whose larger platforms are limited to antiquated warships of the World War II era and some 30-year-old Jacinto-class large patrol boats, seeks to enhance its capability to protect and defend the country’s seas and, crucially, provide a modicum of deterrence to China. Besides the elderly platforms, another glaring operational gap is the lack of SSM and ASW capability, although plans exist to rectify that.

Speaking at the Philippine navy’s 115th anniversary celebration on May 21, 2013, Aquino said that his government is currently pursuing the Philippine Navy’s vision – Strategic Sail Plan 2020 – which aims to reform the service and enhance capacity and capabilities.

He added that the government is allocating an initial $1.76 billion budget for the first five years towards the implementation of the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act, which was signed in December 2012.

Under this act, naval projects include three multipurpose attack craft (MPAC), two frigates, eight amphibious assault vehicles, two ASW-capable  helicopters, as well as other helicopters for the navy’s air support group, in addition to the improvement of the communication, intelligence and surveillance system. Agusta Westland says that all three A109 Power helicopters on order for the Philippine navy will be delivered by 2014. Budgetary allocations toward the acquisition of two strategic sealift vessels (SSV) are unclear, possibly because the focus has shifted toward acquiring modern surface combatants. [Update: Since the article went online, a statement from an official of the Philippine Department of National Defense Bids and Award Committee (DND-BAC) indicates that the two ship SSV project, with a budget of PHP 4 billion ($91.26 million), is active. Bids, from no less than five vendors, are to be opened on July 15, 2013.]

The winning bidder is required to deliver the first Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV) within 730 calendar days from the opening of the Letter of Credit and the second SSV to be delivered a year later, according to the DND-BAC statement. This translates to a projected delivery of the first SSV in 2015, and the second in 2016 before the term of President Aquino ends, according to a local media report.

The major warships in the Philippine fleet comprise two 45-plus-year-old Hamilton-class frigates – the largest in the fleet – as well as nine World War II-era warships, including the Cannon-class destroyer escort Rajah Humabon, two Auk-class, and six Admirable-class minesweepers converted for patrol duties.

Meanwhile, the frigate program has been mired in delays. Initially, two refurbished ex- Italian navy Maestrale-class guided-missile frigates with SSM and ASW capabilities were to be acquired, but this plan was later shelved on cost grounds in favor of two new build platforms.

BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS 36)

Philippine navy ship BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS 36) steams in formation
during exercise Balikatan 2010 (BK 10), March 14, 2010. Serving with the Philippine navy since 1997, the Apolinario Mabini is considered one of the more modern ships in the Philippine navy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez

According to media reports quoting Fernando Manalo, undersecretary for finance at the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND), five countries – the United States, Israel, Croatia, South Korea, and Australia – have expressed their intention to sell modern frigates and offshore patrol vessels. It is very likely that Huntington Ingalls Industries’ patrol frigate concept and Israel Shipyards Saar 72 are contenders, while the South Koreans have offered a modified Incheon-class frigate.

While the decision to forego the acquisition of weapon intensive second-hand frigates make sense in some respects, the key obstacle for the intended frigate program remains the lack of adequate funding.

It has been reported that some $435 million has been allocated for the two frigates. Clearly, this is insufficient for two sophisticated new build combatants with the same level of weaponry as the Maestrales. Therefore, it may well be that the government will allocate additional funding or, failing that, a mix of secondhand frigates and new build OPVs may be eventually acquired.

In any case, the Philippine navy is in dire need of modern surface combatants, and it remains to be seen if the government’s rhetoric matches the outlay of funds toward the much needed naval modernization programs.

 

Philippine Navy Fleet Makeup

The major warships in the Philippine fleet comprise two 45-plus-year-old Hamilton-class frigates – the largest in the fleet – as well as nine World War II-era warships, including the Cannon-class destroyer escort Rajah Humabon, two Auk-class, and six Admirable-class minesweepers converted for patrol duties. Other large patrol craft (larger than 44-meters in length) are three 30-year-old ex-Royal Navy Jacinto-class offshore patrol vessels, a single ex-U.S. Navy Cyclone-class and two locally built 44.2-meter, 280-ton craft built in 1990 and 1999 respectively. The rest of the fleet comprises 37 patrol craft, six MPACs, four World War II-era LSTs, two modern logistic support vessels, one locally built 51.4-meter, 580-ton landing craft utility (LCU) that was commissioned in 2011, three 36-meter, 309-ton World War II-era LCUs, and miscellaneous auxiliaries and yard craft, including four World War II-era tugs.

Meanwhile, its vision for 2020 comprises a force structure of three submarines, six frigates, 12 corvettes, 18 OPVs, 40 patrol gunboats, 42 MPAC, four strategic sealift vessels, three logistic support vessels, 18 LCUs, three MCMV, three ocean tugs, six smaller tugs, eight multi-role helicopters, 18 ASW and ASuW helicopters and eight amphibious aircraft. In reality, the Philippine navy is ever only likely to realize a small fraction of this very ambitious plan, so some difficult choices will have to be made.