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Philippine Navy expands presence with missile, blue-water capability

The year 2018 may be considered a banner year for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), especially the Philippine Navy (PN), as it formally entered the missile age and demonstrated its capability to sail beyond its territorial waters during deployments to the United States, South Korea and Russia.

This is aside from projected deliveries of new assets for 2019, such as the AgustaWestland AW-159 “Wildcat” helicopters and the “Pohang”-class frigate donated by South Korea to the Philippines.

The PN’s formal entry to the missile age took place off Lamao Point, Limay, Bataan, on November 21, when three of its multipurpose assault craft (MPACs) fired the newly acquired and installed Rafael Advanced Defense Ltd. Spike-ER (extended range) surface-to-surface missile during a capability demonstration witnessed by Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana and Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Adm. Robert Empedrad.

During the exercise, the MPACs fired two Spike-ER missile rounds, which hit two surface targets. The craft also utilized remote-controlled .50 caliber machine guns to neutralize another target.

An AgustaWestland AW-109 attack helicopter armed with 2.75-inch high-explosive rockets also provided air support to the MPACs by firing its weapons. “Impressive. Not one [missile] round was wasted,” Lorenzana said in describing the Spike-ER capability demonstration, which he witnessed aboard the BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602).

This is no mean feat considering that the seas were quite rough at the time, he said. “[Modern] technology has come to the Navy, and we will use this technology to protect our seas.”

A single Spike-ER missile round costs about P10 million, which makes accuracy for the PN a virtue.

The first test-firing of the Spike-ER missile took place on August 9 in the same location.

The weapon was fired from one of the PN’s three Spike-ER armed MPACs.

The MPACs were constructed by the Subic-based Propmech Corp. and activated on May 22, 2017.

The PN MPAC Acquisition Project entered into a contract with Rafael, through Sibat of Israel Ministry of Defense, for the supply and integration of the weapons systems to three Mark III MPACs.

On April 15, 2017, Lorenzana approved the Notice to Proceed.

The Spike-ER system, which arrived in the country last April, is the PN’s first missile weapon capable of penetrating 1,000 mm (39 inches) of rolled homogeneous armor and has a range of 8 kilometers.

More missile-armed MPACs needed Empedrad, meanwhile, said missile-armed MPACs can be utilized to defend Philippine waters through the so-called swarming tactic, where such craft can engage larger and more capable ships posing a threat to the country’s waters.

The PN chief said the Navy needs 42 more MPACs to further enhance its capabilities. “Based on our matrix, [we should have] 42 of these type of vessels, [the] MPACs. [We only have] nine, [with another] three coming over next year with the same missile capability. So, [if these ships will operate simultaneously], when we are under siege, I think this will do harm to any threat whether internal or external,” Empedrad said last November 21 aboard the strategic sealift vessel BRP Davao Del Sur.

MPACs are high-speed naval craft capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots and can be utilized for a variety of naval missions like patrol and fire support missions for troops. They may also be armed with machine guns, missiles and a variety of other weapons.

Lorenzana said the Spike-ER missile system acquisition will be followed by big-ticket items like frigates and corvettes, to be armed with more powerful and longer-range missiles.

Besides deterring intruders, the PN’s brand-new MPACs are also ideal for suppressing pirate threats in Sulu waters, the defense chief added.

Empedrad said the MPAC’s secondary weapon, the remote-controlled .50 caliber machineguns, are ideal for fighting pirates.

And when it comes to using the expensive Spike-ER missiles, Empedrad said that they have a doctrine to use when its comes to the usage of the weapon. “For the missile, we have a doctrine [to follow] when to fire the missile because it’s [worth] P10 million. Of course, we won’t fire a missile that is worth P10 million on a banca. It’s uneconomical,” he added, in a mix of English and Filipino.

In the pipeline

With the successful integration of the Spike-ER surface-to-surface missile in the PN’s MPAC squadron, more capable and powerful missile weaponry are now in the pipeline for the Navy, according to PN spokesman Commander Jonathan Zata.

“[Yes]. It [Spike-ER] ushered the Navy and the AFP to the missile age and also prepares for the forthcoming acquisition of a more sophisticated and powerful weapons systems and capabilities,” he said.

Zata said the PN will gain more capability to operate modern naval weaponry with the arrival of the Pohang-class frigate next year, “equipped with a better weapons system that the Navy can already use as it prepares for the delivery of the two purposely built frigates starting 2020.”

The Pohang-class frigate is equipped with a primary and secondary gun system, sensors and torpedoes for anti-submarine as well as sensors for anti-air operations, Zata said.

Missile-armed frigates

The construction of the first missile-armed frigate by South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) is proceeding smoothly, Empedrad said, and it may arrive in February or March of 2020. The second one will be in 2021.

The Philippines and HHI signed a P16-billion contract for two missile-armed frigates with another P2 billion set aside for its weapon systems and munitions.

“The [keel laying] ceremony was conducted at the building dock number 6 of the Special and Naval Shipbuilding Division of HHI. Three blocks of the first PN frigate [with HHI Project Number 159] was installed on the dock,” Capt. Sergio Bartolome, the PN officer supervising the project, earlier said.

Blue-water capability

For the first time in its history, two PN ships, the BRP Davao Del Sur and BRP Andres Bonifacio (FF-17), joined the 2018 Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac, exercises, in Hawaii on June 27, ending on August 2.

Also deployed were around 700 sailors and marines.

Rimpac is the world’s largest joint and combined naval exercise.

The Rimpac exercises included helicopter cross-decking, live-fire exercises, a special operations training, ground-air-integration and replenishment-at-sea.

Lorenzana said international exercises like Rimpac will greatly boost the naval service for prolonged operations at the seas, and allow “our personnel to experience planning and execution of combined naval operations as well as establish the Navy’s capacity for prolonged operations overseas.”

Meanwhile, Rimpac also proves that despite lacking modern ships and weapons, the PN has proven itself capable of operating with its more modern naval counterparts.

“It [the exercise] also validated the age-old principle that it’s always the men behind the guns that will ultimately make the difference. That in spite of the current capabilities of the Navy we were still able to perform very well and on a  par with our more modern partners,” Zata said.

The Navy also made history with BRP Tarlac (LD-601) making the first-ever port visit of a Filipino warship to Vladivostok, Russia.

The ship and its 300-man contingent aboard left Manila South Harbor last September 21 and arrived in time for her scheduled October 1 to 6 port visit.

In Russia, the ship and the contingent participated in several activities with their Russian counterparts.

PN personnel toured the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine Komsomolskna-Amure 877 and the Russian Marine Firing Range.

Another Navy milestone, in terms of overseas deployment, is the participation of BRP Dagupan City (LC-551) and the 200-man contingent aboard her in the first-ever Asean-China Maritime Exercise (Acmex) in Zhanjiang in Guangdong, China, from October 21 to 28.

The participation of the PN had greatly addressed interoperability issues between the participating navies. “It’s good that our naval ships can now communicate with China and other Asean navies) so it’s a good exercise and we hope we’ll have more of this in the future,” Empedrad said.

Despite the handicaps, the PN chief said the crew of the BRP Dagupan City showed their skills and resulted in the PN winning the communication drill exercise.

The Acmex 2018 was an exercise hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy and the China People’s Liberation Army Navy that aimed to promote regional cooperation between Asean member-states navies and focused on maritime safety and search and rescue at sea with emphasis on the use of Code of Unplanned Encounter at Sea (CUES).

Earlier, DND Spokesman Arsenio Andolong said the proposal for a joint Asean and Chinese naval exercise was submitted during the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting in Singapore last February.

Anti-submarine choppers

With the impending arrival of the Navy’s first two AgustaWestland AW-159 “Wildcat” anti-submarine helicopters by the first quarter of 2019, the PN will now have the capability to detect and engage underwater targets.

“It is a big leap essentially [because] with this capability, we now have this tool [capable] of securing not only the surface waters that we have but also underwater,” Zata noted.

Before the AgustaWestland AW-159 “Wildcat” anti-submarine helicopter was acquired, the PN had no capability to detect and engage sub-surface threats.

The AW-159 will be based aboard the two new frigates being constructed by Hyundai Heavy Industries.

The PN spokesman said the aircraft will be fitted with sensors and weapons capable of neutralizing sub-surface threats.

The aircraft were acquired for P5.4 billion, including munitions, mission-essential equipment and integrated logistic support.

The AW-159 (previously called the Future Lynx and Lynx Wildcat) is an improved version of the Westland Super Lynx military helicopter.

The AW-159 can also be armed with rockets, machine guns, missiles, torpedoes and depth charges.

Meanwhile, the PN’s surveillance and monitoring capability was boosted with the formal donation of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force of three more Beechcraft King Air TC-90 patrol aircraft last March 26.

The TC-90, which is part of the Beechcraft King Air aircraft family, was offered by Japan shortly after the Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology was finalized on February 29, 2016.

The first two TC-90s were delivered to the Philippines on March 27, 2017, while the last three aircraft were handed over to the PN last March 26.

Source: By Priam Nepomuceno / Philippine News Agency – January 1, 2019