|One of the ships to be transferred to the Philippine Navy, the former HMAS Brunei (L 127).|
Photo taken from worldwarships.com
Aside from the transfer of the said ships, the Australian MOD has offered three other Balikpapan-class landing crafts for sale to the Philippine government. They are the former HMAS Balikpapan (L 126), HMAS Wewak (L 130) and HMAS Betano (L 133), which were decommissioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 2012. Recent media reports quoting Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) officials that they are indeed interested in acquiring the ships for US$16.5 million, including refurbishing works prior to delivery.
The Balikpapan-class Landing Craft Heavy (LCH)
The Australian-made Balikpapan-class landing craft heavy were first built and commissioned in 1971 for the Australian Army (later handed-over to the Royal Australian Navy). A total of eight (8) units were built as a replacement for the World War II era Landing Ship Mediums that Australia operated. Two of the LCH were later handed-over to the Papua New Guinea Defence Forces when the country became independent from Australia's administration in 1975.
|Five Balikpapan-class ships during an amphibious landing exercise by the Royal Australian Navy.|
Photo taken from RAN website.
Each ship is 44.5 meters long, 10.1 meters wide, a draught of 2.0 meters, and full load displacement of 517 tons. It has a 16-man crew, a carrying capacity of 180 tons of cargo, and is powered by two Caterpillar 3406E marine diesel engines propelling the ships to a maximum speed of 10 knots.
Comparison to Philippine Navy's Current Landing Craft Assets:
Compared to the Philippine Navy's lone Tagbanua-class landing craft utility (LCU) BRP Tagbanua (AT-296), the Balikpapan-class ships are smaller and slower (10 knots vs 15 knots maximum speed), but has a larger carrying load capacity than the Tagbanua (180 tons vs 110 tons). The Balikpapans also have a smaller internal space for passengers, and is mostly suitable in transporting vehicles and goods rather than people or troops, as compared to the Tagbanua which has a large internal capacity and seating for troops and shelter from outside conditions like sunlight, heat, or rain. Being old ships, expect the performance values of the Balikpapan-class to be less than written in sources, and it is expected that safety measures will be made which includes capping the maximum capabilities to a lesser degree than originally designed.
|The Philippine Navy's BRP Tagbanua (AT-296) is larger and faster, but can carry less payload than the Balikpapan-class.|
It would be almost similar in capability and design as the other locally-made Landing Craft Utility of the Philippine Navy, the lesser known BRP Manobo (BU-297). It has the same large open cargo deck suitable for bringing in vehicles just like the Balikpapan-class, although it appears that the Manobo is a longer ship. There is not much available information on the performance values of BRP Manobo although a source confirmed that it has even less capacity than the BRP Tagbanua although it also costs less to operate.
|The BRP Manobo (BU-297) bringing in people and relief goods on unprepared ports.|
Photo taken from the Philippine Navy's FB page.
The LCH in Philippine Setting:
There were several queries from MaxDefense readers in our Facebook page about the capabilities of the Balikpapan-class LCH.
Operating in the Kalayaan Group of Islands: Being a low-draft, flat hulled ship, the Balikpapan-class LCH are suitable for beaching operations that can be used during combat amphibious operations, or landing of equipment on unprepared ports or beaches. This could be very useful for HADR operations, as emphasized by the Australian MOD for its reason to grant two ships to the PN. Emergency vehicles such as construction equipment, lorries for transporting goods, and military vehicles like tanks and armored vehicles can easily be moved around the archipelago using these. But its design is not suitable for deep water operations on high sea states.
|The HMAS Betano (L 133) carrying several M113 armored vehicles of the Australian Army.|
Being so, technically it can deliver supplies to the outposts of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KIG), but due to its slow speed and design it may not be advisable to do so without support. At only 10 knots maximum speed, it would take 2 days for it to reach the KIG from Palawan, and another 2 days going back, plus the time it spends around the KIG delivering supplies. Although it takes almost the same time for an old Landing Ship Tank (LST) to do the same, it doesn't have the size and design to stay too long at open sea without the risk of getting into unfavorable weather conditions, unlike the larger LST.
It would be optimal to use the LCH on coastal waters or shallow waters, which include the territorial and archipelagic waters of the country, or in missions to nearby countries like Malaysia. This was proven by the BRP Tagbanua during its mission to Malaysia to bring in Filipinos fleeing Sabah a few years ago.
Docking Inside the Strategic Sealift Vessel's Well Deck:
Due to its high superstructure design and size, it is also not possible to dock the LCH inside the well decks of the upcoming Strategic Sealift Vessel / Landing Platform Dock. Although the SSV has its own landing craft, these are different in design and size. The Balikpapan-class is very much larger than those integral LC, and are actually capable of independent operation without reliance on larger "mother-ships" like the SSV.
|The Balikpapan's size won't even fit inside well decks of major US Navy amphibious vessels like the one above, more so on smaller LPDs like the Philippine Navy's SSV.|
Weapons to be Installed:
Previously the Royal Australian Navy installed two 12.7mm machine guns as self-defense weapons of the ship. It is expected that the Philippine Navy would retain these guns, and might even fit each ship with either more machine guns, or install it with larger caliber guns like old 20mm Oerlikon guns previously installed on old PN ships and are now stored in the Naval Sea Systems Command warehouses.
|A RAN crewman from the HMAS Balikpapan operating one of its 12.7mm machine guns.|
Photo taken from the RAN website.
Don't expect missiles or other more advanced weapons to be installed other than the guns mentioned above.
LCH in the Desired Force Mix:
The Philippine Navy's Desired Force Mix whitepaper states that they need around 18 units of landing craft utility or similar designed ships for inter-island transport and as a smaller alternative to the service's Landing Ship Tanks and the upcoming Strategic Sealift Vessel / Landing Platform Dock. This acquisition fits in to this requirement, and would be a fast way of beefing up the fleet while the navy restarts any building program for more landing crafts like the BRP Tagbanua which takes time from planning to construction to commissioning. Other upcoming assets like Landing Crafts-Utility from South Korea is also another addition that could improve the short-term capabilities of the Philippine Navy.
Since I have seen these ships upfront in the past, MaxDefense believes that these assets are still capable of use for at least 15 more years with proper maintenance and care. It is a good design that can even be used by the Philippine Navy and local shipyards as a basis for future landing craft design requirements.
Aside from landing crafts, MaxDefense suggests that the Philippine Navy acquire assets that could replace the ageing World War II era Landing Ships-Tank, which should be larger than the LCH and LCU, has the same beaching capability, and can be slotted in-between the landing crafts and the upcoming SSV/LPD. There are LST designs offered by friendly countries like Korea, India, and Indonesia that could be worth looking at, and is expected to be cheaper than the $42 million SSV. With the South Korean Navy upgrading its amphibious forces assets, it is also expected that they might be releasing their Go Jun Bong-class LSTs in the near future. LSTs have been proven to be an effective transport asset in the past, and even used by the PN for different duties including as patrol vessels, HADR assets, and even as helicopter platforms.
|The ROKS Bi Ro Bong, one of the Go Jun Bong-class LSTs of the Korean Navy.|
Photo taken from Wikimedia.
Another alternative to new LSTs are more Logistics Support Vessels similar to the Bacolod City-class of the Philippine Navy. These are simple-designed transport vessels, possibly cheaper to acquire than an LST, and its design is so simple that it can even be easily built in the Philippines. If the US Army would take them out of service anytime soon, MaxDefense suggests that the PN take a look at them.
MaxDefense welcomes the impending addition of these assets for the Philippine Navy, and as an Australian, I am proud and thankful to the Australian government for its generous support to the Philippines.