With skill and some luck, the second attempt to reach the outpost was successful, but until when can the AFP do the same to freely access a part of Philippine territory and EEZ. The Philippine government must always consider changes in the way the Chinese until try to control the area. It is expected that the China Coast Guard will make adjustments to their naval blockade and make sure that a repeat of the successful passage of a Philippine vessel will be harder or impossible next time.
|The BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), the only outpost the Philippine government has at the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) which is being claimed by China but is under control by the Philippines.|
|A China Cost Guard vessel attempting to block the civilian Philippine supply ship heading towards Ayungin Shoal.|
So far, the Chinese are unable to stop aerial resupply missions, wherein the Philippine Navy (PN) previously use their BN-2 Islander light utility aircraft and flying low over the BRP Sierra Madre and drop supplies. Stopping them can only be done by either forcing them away using fighter aircraft, which is already an aggressive move but can still be disregarded by AFP aircraft. Other ways to stop aircraft attempting to supply the outposts is by radar-locking the aircraft, which is already a serious threat from the aggressor being a signal of a probable missile launch, or by shooting down the PN aircraft. Although the Chinese may not do the last 2 possibilities, it can do the first example but the AFP aircraft can always disregard them.
|The BRP Sierra Madre being overflown by a Philippine Navy BN-2 Islander aircraft attempting an airdrop.|
Photo taken from WESCOM, AFP website.
With this, MaxDefense suggests the use of medium or heavy-lift helicopters, which can operate from naval or civilian ships several miles away from the Chinese blockade. These helicopters have the endurance, size, and payload capacity to carry men and supplies from a distance, and can fly over the Chinese naval blockade. Supplies can be dropped on the deck of BRP Sierra Madre and on allocated spaces provided on far-flung outposts in the KIG in a similar way as a vertical replenishment (VERTREP) usually done in naval operations.
Also known as VERTREP, this is a method of dropping supplies to ships or outposts similar to the BRP Sierra Madre. Supplies can be carried underneath helicopters using specialized slings or cargo nets, and are delivered by hovering the helicopter over the drop area and manually releasing the load from below. The Philippine Navy is currently learning this supply process using their newly-acquired AW109 Power helicopters as part of their skills and capability improvement.
|A US Navy MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter doing a VERTREP of supplies. A similar procedure can be done by the AFP to supply outposts in the WPS in case Chinese provocations and naval blockades persist in the near future.|
Photo taken from Defenselink.mil.
So far, only the Philippine Navy's Gregorio del Pilar-class frigates have the capacity to carry helicopters capable enough to do major VERTREP missions, and are only equipped with small helicopters like the AW109 Power which are not really designed for this capability. But these frigates' flight decks are capable of accepting 10-ton class helicopters, there are very few helicopters that can be suggested for this requirement.
The most obvious helicopter is the Sikorsky MH-60S "Knighthawk", which is the primary VERTREP helicopter of the US Navy. It was designed to do these missions, and can also be a viable candidate for the PN's requirement for transport helicopters for its upcoming Strategic Sealift Vessels (SSV). The PN could acquire 4 units, 2 assigned for each of the future SSV, and can be temporarily assigned to other PN ships for duties such as supply runs.
But buying new helicopters means that it will take some years before the first helicopter becomes available, so MaxDefense also suggests the acquisition of EDA helicopters in the meanwhile either by grant or reduced price purchase. MaxDefense suggests the Boeing Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters that are being replaced in the US Marine Corps, and are readily available for transfer to allies like the Philippines. Sea Knights were previously used by the US Navy for VERTREP missions until they were replaced by the MH-60S. These helicopters can be carried by the PN frigate's flight deck and are capable of VERTREP operations. Reportedly the US has been offering the CH-46 to friendly nations, and can be requested by the DND as part of the US' defense assistance to the Philippines.
|A US CH-46 helicopter doing VERTREP. The US has a lot of readily available CH-46 helicopters that can be obtained via EDA grants.|
Photo taken from fas.org.
Aside from ship-based helicopters, the AFP could also consider acquiring larger transport helicopters that can be deployed from Palawan to supply its outposts in the KIG, and at the same time be used for other missions like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and troop transport.
Other Possible Helicopter Suggestions:
The DND has been looking at acquiring larger helicopters than its current assets, but has always given priority to replace its ageing UH-1H fleet while also having consistent budgetary issues that has been plaguing the Philippine armed forces for several decades now. But with the move to improve the military's transport and HADR capability may have opened the possibility to acquire them due to their size, range and payload in carrying supplies. This was suggested earlier by MaxDefense in an earlier blog entry, and it appears that the DND has shown interest on acquiring such assets and has been looking at this capability that may be included in its future defense procurement projects.
Coming from the mainland Palawan which is more than 100 miles from the outposts, they could store the supplies inside the helicopters, and deliver them by hovering low and dropping them on specialized platforms installed on the ship deck which will safely break the fall of the supply containers.
For heavy-lift helicopters, MaxDefense suggestions include the CH-53 Super Stallion/Sea Stallion and the CH-47 Chinook, both of which are available for Excess Defense Articles (EDA) transfer from the US government. The DND may even opt to buy a couple of new Boeing CH-47F Chinooks or the Sikorsky CH-53K Super Stallions if budget permits, although getting EDA would be an easier route due to cost considerations.
|Surplus CH-53D Sea Stallions can be obtained from the US military stocks, after refurbishing that will probably be shouldered by the Philippine government.|
Photo taken from Airliners.net
Another alternative are the smaller but still capable medium-lift helicopters, which are also currently not available in the PAF or AFP's inventory. MaxDefense suggests the Eurocopter's EC725 Super Cougar, or AgustaWestland's AW101. These helicopters are reportedly cheaper to acquire, operate and maintain as compared to larger helicopters like the Super Stallion.
|The Eurocopter EC-725 Super Cougar is a medium helicopter currently in use or ordered by other ASEAN armed forces like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.|
Photo taken from Planespotters.net.
|Another worth considering for the medium helicopter is the AgustaWestland AW101, the example above being operated by the Royal Air Force.|
Photo taken from Planespotters.net
Some issues that hinders the acquisition of heavy and medium-lift helicopters for the AFP are mostly on the costs of procurement, operation, and maintenance. Operating a squadron may indeed be cost prohibitive to the AFP, but operating a small fleet of at least 3 or 4 heavy-lift helicopters might be sufficient for the basic requirements of the AFP and in supporting resupply missions. Aside from this, the helicopters can be used for combat and peacetime search and rescue, air assault missions, and transport requirements to areas without airfields.
These large helicopters may not need to be operated at the same tempo as the smaller combat utility helicopters of the PAF. The availability of other rotary assets like the UH-1H and W-3A, and Bell 412 with the PAF means that the AFP has a lot of helicopter options to use in case the heavy lift helicopters are considered too much for a certain mission. This is the same concept to the reason why the Philippine Air Force (PAF) maintains and procures different transport aircraft sizes like the C-130, C-295 and NC-212.
Preparation of BRP Sierra Madre for VERTREP:
For the BRP Sierra Madre, it would also be best if the AFP can make structural modifications on the ship's deck to make it suitable for dropping supplies carried underneath the helicopter, and not necessarily for the helicopter to land. Recent photos of the outpost shows massive degradation of the steel deck that may not be able to carry loads brought upon by a heavy-lift helicopter.
Structural strengthening will improve the ship deck's capability to accept heavy load of supplies without the risk of giving way due to weight. This may include works that may affect the so-called "status quo" of not building structures on the disputed territories, although the works can be made inside the ship without being noticed by Chinese or other foreign surveillance aircraft, ships or satellites. The only concern on this is bringing in the construction materials needed, which might be done by another supply run via ships similar to the usual procedure the AFP does its supply missions.
|The BRP Sierra Madre's deck must be structurally strengthened to accommodate supplies stowed underneath the heavy lift helicopter.|
Photo taken from Inquirer.net
Aside for preparation for VERTREP, the ship is in dire need for repair works and improvement of facilities. The entire ship is literally falling apart and becoming unsafe for those Marines stationed there. This is another consideration why the AFP and DND must think of ways to physically improve the outpost and improve the living conditions there.
Other outposts in the KIG, like those on Patag, Panata, Kota, Lawak, Parola, and Pag-asa islands, at Rizal and Balagtas reefs must also be improved, although this may have serious implications that will give other claimants their own reasons to do the same for their occupied areas. A simple provision of supply dropping point by helicopters can easily be prepared without doing major construction works.
|Other outposts like those in Patag Island have enough space for helicopters to land. Accessing the island from to bring supplies from ships requires the use of rubber boats to avoid stranding the supply ships.|
Photo taken from Interaksyon.com.
July 20, 2015:
News reports surfaced on the plans to structurally repair and improve the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), which includes preparing a helicopter landing deck on the ship. It is still unclear how the AFP or Philippine Navy intends to do that reinforcement for the ship (which is still considered a commissioned warship of the Philippine Navy), but it would definitely be enought to accomodate existing PAF and PN helicopter assets.
MaxDefense suggests that they consider increasing the load carrying capacity of the helicopter landing deck, including installation of proper lighting and safety features to enable nighttime and poor weather condition use if necessary.
Although this project for the ship should have been kept under dark to the media due to its sensitivity, everything is already out so the best they can do is make sure to do the upgrades, and do it fast without hesitation or budget deprivation.