Modernising the Philippine Navy

Initially the Philippines wants to build its military to a point where it has a ‘Minimum Credible Defence Posture.’ Key components of this posture are described as ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ and ‘Maritime Security.’

Issue: 3 / 2014By David SawPhoto(s): By US Navy, US Pacific Command, AgustaWestland

The Philippine Navy (PN) is starting to benefit from the commitment of the Philippine Government to defence modernisation. For many years the PN, like the other services in the armed forces of the Philippines (AFP), suffered from under-funding and ageing equipment, now that is starting to change.

The current Philippine Government under President Benigno Aquino III is providing both the leadership and the means to make defence modernisation a reality. The structure for this is provided by the AFP Modernization Act (Republic Act 10349), that became law on December 11, 2012, in effect this is a 15-year defence modernisation programme. Although all elements of the AFP will benefit from modernisation expenditure, the PN is poised to reap significant benefits.

Initially the Philippines wants to build its military to a point where it has a ‘Minimum Credible Defence Posture.’ Key components of this posture are described as ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ and ‘Maritime Security.’ What this translates into is providing the PN with the capabilities to know what is going on in the Philippines maritime area of interest, then giving it the capabilities to protect Philippine interests and finally to deter hostile actors.

One of the catalysts for this emphasis on naval modernisation is the fact that the Philippines finds itself in dispute with China over the Spratly Islands (known as the Kalayaan Islands to the Philippines) in the central South China Sea. Claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, the Spratly Islands cover an area of some 4,10,000 sq. km, with the islands themselves actually being around 100 islets, coral reefs, and sea mounts scattered over the area. The importance of these islands is that possession offers access to potentially enormous offshore oil and gas deposits, vast fishing grounds and a strategic position astride major seaplanes in the South China Sea.

China has already demonstrated its desire to be the dominant force in the Spratly Islands, hence the concern of the Philippine Government. The recent signature of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States by the Philippines, on April 28, shows that the Philippine Government is working hard to bolster its security position. However, it is recognised that the Philippines cannot rely on others and that its Minimum Credible Defence Posture requires the acquisition of new naval systems to act as a deterrent.

Fleet Building

The PN has already made significant progress on its journey towards a more modern and effective fleet, although as things currently stand its legacy assets are elderly and no longer provide the desired operational capability. In consequence the PN has defined its desired future force structure, this will consist of six frigates, 12 new corvettes optimised for ASW and 10 new OPVs for EEZ surveillance and related missions. After that they intend to acquire up to three submarines and an MCMV capability of three units. In addition support forces will also be significantly upgraded.

Naval Aviation in the Philippines

The Naval Air Group (NAG) of the Philippine Navy is responsible for naval aviation in the Philippines and has both helicopter and fixed-wing assets. Legacy assets include seven Britten Norman BN-2A1B Islander aircraft, with six flyable, a Cessna 172F and a Cessna 172N (delivered 2008) for training. The first helicopter to enter service with the NAG was the MBB (now Airbus Helicopters) Bo 105C, initially six were acquired followed by an additional helicopter in 1988, currently some four Bo 105C are operational. More recently in September 2007 the NAG received a Robinson R22 Beta II training helicopter.

Defence modernisation investment has seen the NAG receive new helicopter capabilities, with much more in prospect. The first sign of this was an order for three AgustaWestland AW109 Power helicopters, for search and rescue (SAR) missions, with these helicopters being delivered in December 2013. Then in February 2014 it was announced that two more AW109 Power helicopters had been ordered with delivery due in the second half of 2014.

The NAG envisages having an 18-strong helicopter force, of which five AW109 Power helicopters will form part, for SAR, utility and other operational functions. Separately the NAG also has an acquisition programme to acquire a force of six dedicated maritime helicopters for ASV/ASW missions, these helicopters will be ship-based. In March the Philippine Department of National Defence (DND) announced an acquisition programme for an initial two dedicated maritime helicopters with $120 million (PHP 5.4 billion) being allocated to fund the programme. This acquisition is to be decided before the end of the year.

At present the favoured candidate appears to be the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat, as used by the Royal Navy. However, the funding allocation, even though it includes Integrated Logistics Support (ILS), training and other expenditure, can support the acquisition of other helicopter types if so desired. As yet there has been no movement on discussing a weapons package for the new helicopters. Initially the two helicopters will be deployed on the two former US Coast Guard Hamilton class High Endurance Cutters BRP Grigorio del Pilar (PF 15) and BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF 16). More helicopters will be acquired for the two frigates being purchased under the Deep Water Patrol Vessel (DWPV) programme, with two more helicopters required for the two further frigates that the Philippine Navy intends to acquire.

Although AgustaWestland has built a strong position in the Philippines, the Philippine Government is committed to open procurement, thus Airbus Helicopters and Sikorsky amongst others will both have opportunities to meet NAG helicopter requirements.

Two of the six frigates are already in service, these are BRP Grigorio del Pilar (PF 15) and BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF 16), the two former US Coast Guard Hamilton class High Endurance Cutters, commissioned in 2011 and 2012. This acquisition provided a useful patrol capability fairly rapidly, but now the PN wants to do much more with these units. They will conduct a Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) and this will also see the addition of new weapons and sensors to increase the operational utility of the two frigates.

The acquisition programme for two more new frigates is due to be settled later this year, this is known as the Deep Water Patrol Vessel (DWPV) programme. These will be advanced modern frigates, with the programme budget being in the $400 million range. The PN is currently looking at proposals from four companies: Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and STX Offshore, all from the Republic of Korea, (ROK), and Navantia of Spain.

After the completion of DWPV the PN will then proceed with the acquisition of two more frigates, although the programme strategy has yet to be firmed up. At this point both new construction and the acquisition of second-hand ships are an option, in the end it will come down to how rapidly the PN needs the frigates and the sort of budgets that they have to play with at that point in the future.

As the new frigates, corvettes and OPV units arrive, legacy units will be retired although some will remain in service for many years yet. For example, the Emilio Jacinto class of three patrol corvettes, originally commissioned in 1983-84 as the Peacock class for the Royal Navy for use in the OPV mission from Hong Kong, entered PN service in August 1997. In recent years these units have been significantly upgraded in terms of electronics, propulsion systems and the hull. Other life extension and modernisation programmes are under consideration to further increase the operational life of these units.

PN modernisation will also see the acquisition of a large class of small fast attack craft known as the multi-purpose attack craft (MPAC), six units are already in service but now the PN is looking for a next generation MPAC with far more impressive capabilities. These will have a speed of 40 knots and a length of less than 20 metres, the key change is that an armament package will be provided, this will include a remote weapon station (RWS) with a 12.7mm calibre machine gun and, importantly, the installation of up to 10 surface-to-surface missiles of an unspecified type. Rafael of Israel is one of the companies seen as a likely source of equipment for this next-generation MPAC. In total the PN hopes to acquire some 40 MPAC.

The enhancement of PN amphibious warfare and support forces has already commenced. Apart from their military application, these forces also have significant utility in the disaster relief mission. This capability is seen as essential, with Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) of November 2013, the most powerful tropical cyclone ever to hit the Philippines, providing an object lesson in the importance of effective disaster relief capabilities.

The PN future force structure has a requirement for a class of four units known as the Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV), in reality this is an LPD-sized unit. The contract for the first two SSV was awarded to PT PAL of Indonesia in January, they will be supplying a design based on the Makassar class built for the Indonesian Navy. The first two SSV will be delivered in 2016-17. There is also a requirement for three logistic support ships, that will most likely be a derivative of an LST design. The PN fleet train received a boost in March when an agreement was signed with the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) to transfer three small oil tankers to the PN. It should be noted that PN amphibious warfare and support forces have an important role to play in supplying Philippine outposts in the Spratly/Kalayaan Islands.

The Philippines is making a significant defence modernisation investment, with the PN being a major beneficiary. The funding is available to support acquisition programmes and these programmes are being efficiently conducted in an open and transparent manner. Over time this will translate into the Philippines having a navy that is more than capable of providing the desired minimum credible defence posture.