COLUMN | The Philippine Navy: no longer a scrapyard fleet [Naval Gazing]

The Philippine Navy guided missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal conducts flight operations as part of Exercise RIMPAC 2020 off Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo: Philippine Navy/Seaman 1st Class Ronald Pataueg)

For many years the Philippine Navy (PN) could provide only threadbare security for the nation’s 5,700 million square kilometres sea area and 7,600 islands. Its order of battle was notoriously antiquated. Most of its major warships were American-built, of World War II vintage, having formerly served with the South Vietnamese Navy, before being sailed to Manila following the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1976.

This ramshackle fleet could do little to protect Philippine-claimed waters and islands from incursions by Vietnamese and other foreign vessels.

Rather more modern was the substantial force of coastal and middle water patrol vessels of indigenous German and South Korean origin. Employed on counterinsurgency and anti-piracy duties in the south of the country, these vessels boasted heavy cannon and machine gun armament that proved useful, but they lacked guided missiles.

A particular problem was posed by incurring Chinese paramilitary craft, which were reputedly involved in tobacco smuggling. According to some persistent regional reports, one such craft was destroyed by PN 30-millimetre cannon fire in the 1990s.

Recent naval vessel acquisitions

The Philippine Navy patrol ship BRP Gregorio Del Pilar in 2016 (Photo: Philippine Navy)

An early move towards modernisation was the 1997 purchase of three ex-UK Royal Navy Peacock-class Hong Kong patrol craft. These 720-tonne, 1980s-built warships were subsequently upgraded with improved electronics, a remotely operated stern-mounted 30-millimetre cannon, and two hand-operated 20-millimetre cannon.

Between 2011 and 2016, three ex-US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters were transferred to the PN. At 3,250 tonnes, with a length of 115 metres, these diesel/gas turbine-powered, helicopter-capable ships significantly enhanced the PN’s seaward presence. They have each since been fitted with two 25-millimetre cannon to back up their main armament of a 76-millimetre gun.

The three ships are deployed on patrol, exercise and training duties, while one, Gregorio del Pilar, is the PN flagship.

The Philippine Navy corvette BRP Conrado Yap, formerly the South Korean Navy’s ROKS Chungju, during its formal handover on August 5, 2019 (Photo: Philippine Navy)

In 2019, the first of a planned two Republic of Korea Navy Pohang-class corvettes was transferred to the PN and renamed Conrado Yap. Its main armament is two 76-millimetre guns, backed up by a pair of 30-millimetre cannon. Missile armament was removed prior to transfer. Another Pohang-class corvette is due to be transferred by 2023.

The year 2020 was a milestone year for the PN as it commissioned its first guided missile frigate, Jose Rizal, built by Korea Tacoma Shipyard. It was joined in 2021 by sister ship Antonio Luna. The armament of these 2,600-tonne warships includes South Korean C-Star anti-shipping cruise missiles, the Turkish Aselsan Smash remotely fired 30-millimetre cannon, and two triple launchers for South Koran Blue Shark anti-submarine torpedoes. Flight deck space is available for one AW159 Wildcat helicopter.

The Philippine Navy frigate BRP Antonio Luna shortly after arriving in Philippine waters following delivery from South Korea on February 9, 2021 (Photo: Philippine Navy)

Two guided-missile corvettes are meanwhile on order from South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries.

The PN’s coastal forces now include 12 multi-purpose assault craft, some armed with Spike surface-to-surface missiles. These craft were jointly built by a Taiwanese company and Propmech of the Philippines.

Further upgrading is imminent. with the acquisition of eight Israeli Shaldag-class high performance patrol craft, the first three being due for delivery by April this year.

The Philippine Navy patrol vessel BRP Andres Bonifacio (foreground) and landing platform dock BRP Davao Del Sur (Photo: Philippine Navy)

The PN’s amphibious warfare fleet, a major asset for maintaining security in the country’s remoter areas, has been boosted over the past decade by the commissioning of two Indonesian-built Tarlac-class landing platform docks, and five ex-Australian Balikpapan-class heavy landing craft.

The PN has now retired most of its old vessels although the corvette Magat Salamat has recently been temporarily recommissioned as a command ship for relief operations in the typhoon-ravaged Dinagat Islands.

According to a recent announcement, which has attracted the attention of many regional commentators, the PN is to receive a number of Indian Brahmos land-based anti-shipping missile systems. News of the deployment of these systems is awaited.

Coast guard following suit

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was for long a small and poorly-equipped adjunct of the PN. In 1998 it was re-established as a stand-alone force under the Department of Transport and Communications. Modernisation began in 2000 with commissioning of the first of eight search and rescue craft, built by Tenix in Australia.

The Philippine Coast Guard multi-role response vessel BRP Capones (Photo: Philippine Coast Guard)

Tokyo, for strategic reasons, has made funding available for a substantial upgrade of the PCG, and from 2016 to 2018 ten 45-metre, 15-knot Parola-class patrol ships, built by Japan Marine United (JMU), were supplied. Dubbed multi role response vessels (MRRVs) by the PCG, these vessels have recently been particularly active in the South China Sea (SCS).

On sea trials in Japan are two 97-metre, helicopter-capable patrol ships built by Mitsubishi. These vessels will likely raise the profile of the PCG in regional waters, but like the service’s existing craft, they reportedly will be armed only with machine guns.

BRP Gabriela Silang (Photo: OCEA)

The PCG’s current flagship, the 84-metre Gabriela Silang, built by OCEA of France, was commissioned in 2020.

The PCG also operates a very large inshore and coastal flotilla, ranging from high speed interceptors to locally-constructed bancas.

Manila’s increasing seaward power might be having some effect. The deployment of PN and PCG assets has reportedly constrained some proactive China Maritime Militia activity. Also, In early January this year, a China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ship initially repelled civilian-manned vessels trying to resupply the Philippine Marine Corps contingent on board the old tank landing ship Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded as an observation post on Philippine-claimed Second Thomas Shoal in the SCS. The CCG ship later backed off when a PN-manned supply convoy was sent in.

Although widely criticised for allegedly being “soft on China,” President Rodrigo Duterte has proven to be a strong backer of the upgrading of Philippine maritime forces, even approving, last year, a project for the acquisition of submarines. He might, perhaps, be playing a shrewder game than is generally recognised.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.