Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Amphibious Warfare Capabilities of the Philippine Navy - Past, Present and Future

Being an archipelagic country with more than 7,100 islands comprising its land mass, the Philippines is a natural geography for use of the sea for transporting people, goods, and services. The government and the Philippine Navy knows of this strength and weakness, and utmost attention is given to improve on the capabilities in this regard. MaxDefense discusses the amphibious capabilities of the Philippine Navy on this entry, a short history of its beginnings, its current assets, and upcoming assets to beef up its dwindling fleet.


One of the two Bacolod City-class of the Philippine Navy. The 2 ships are currently the most significant and one of the newest amphibious naval assets of the fleet. 



Post War Surge:
Philippine Naval Patrol:
After World War II, the newly formed Philippine Naval Patrol (PNP, forefather of the Philippine Navy) acknowledges this by making priority to build-up its Amphibious and Sealift transport capabilities. Requests were made to the US government for the transfer of mothballed landing ships used during World War II, with several Landing Ships Tank (LST) and landing crafts transferred to the PNP in 1947. Some of the ships were even used to transport troops and supplies from the Philippines and Japan to South Korea in support of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea in the 1950s.


New Philippine Navy:
As the Philippine Offshore Patrol became the Philippine Navy, more former US Navy LSTs were transferred through the years. The Philippine Navy's amphibious capabilities peaked in the late 1970s, with the fleet having more than 20 LSTs, several Medium Landing Ships (LSM) and landing crafts of all sizes, and a few amphibious support vessels. All these assets were hand-me downs from the US government, or were former South Vietnamese Navy units handed-over by the US to the Philippines after escaping the fall of South Vietnam in the late 1970s.



The Philippine Navy's landing ship tank BRP Benguet (LT-507), which was the former USN USS Daviess County (LST-692). She was launched in March 1944 and is still in active service 71 years later.
Photo taken from Navsource.


Aside from amphibious support and transport duties, these vessels double up as patrol vessels, deployed in support of securing the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) including areas of interest like the Kalayaan Group of Islands, and for Search and Rescue Operations. They were even used as offshore helicopter landing platforms for Philippine Air Force (PAF) and Navy helicopters, as naval gunfire provider during operations near waters, and for naval blockades against rebels and terrorists escaping from military ground operations.It once had the largest amphibious warfare fleet in Southeast Asia, all together capable of deploying several brigades worth of troops and warfighting assets.



The BRP Tausug (AT-25), a Landing Craft Utility (LCU) of the Philippine Navy. This is also a former US Navy asset handed-over to the Philippines.
Photo taken from Wikimedia.




Decline in Amphibious Capabilities:
With the US bases in Clark and Subic permanently closed down in 1991, the continuous military support by the US government for the Philippine Armed Forces came to a halt. With this also affected the Philippine Navy's capabilities to have their ships repaired, spare parts acquired, and financial assistance to support ageing assets. One by one, most of the naval assets of the Philippine Navy, including most of its amphibious warfare fleet, were left for disrepair, and most were either cannibalized to maintain other ships or were sold as scrap.


The BRP Davao Oriental (LT-506) in 1991. The ship was sold as scrap a few years later.
Photo taken by Edison Sy, taken from Navsource.


The BRP Agusan del Sur (LT-54) in 1986 when it was offered for sale.
Photo taken by Edison Sy, taken from Navsource.

The only new asset the Philippine Navy got in the 1990s were two Logistics Support Vessels (LSV), now called collectively as the Bacolod City-class LSV, from the US government as part of their military assistance bundled with the US bases rents. This was not enough to replace dozens of assets that were retired after long years of service. Additional assets acquired in the past few years include two locally-made Large Utility Landing Crafts (LCU), now called the BRP Tagbanua and BRP Manobo.

Currently, the Philippine Navy's amphibious capabilities are far less capable than it was decades ago. Of the dozens of ex-US Navy World War II era LST, LSM, Landing Crafts Utility (LCU), only a struggling few remain in active service while only a few new assets replaced all the retired ships of the past.




Current Amphibious Warfare Capabilities of the Philippine Navy:

The PN of today have the following amphibious warfare vessels in its inventory:

Landing Ship Tank:
Only the BRP Laguna (LT-501) and the BRP Benguet (LT-507), both former US Navy World War II era tank landing ships remain in PN service. Both are becoming more difficult to maintain, as they require several dock repairs due to poor hull condition and ageing mechanical and electrical systems. Both are in working condition but require replacements very soon. 


The BRP Laguna (LT-501) docked probably in the Visayas region. 2 of the class remain in service with the Philippine Navy.



Logistics Support Vessels:

Probably the most capable transport assets of the Philippine Navy, the two Bacolod City-class LSVs, the BRP Bacolod City (LC-550) and the BRP Dagupan City (LC-551) were based on the US Army's Frank Beeson-class transport ships. The Philippine Navy version has a helicopter landing deck on the aft. Originally the LC-551 was to be named BRP Cagayan de Oro City, but with Fidel Ramos' victory as president-elect in 1992, politics came in and changes were made to change the name to a city from Pangasinan, thus becoming BRP Dagupan City.


The BRP Bacolod City (LC-550), the lead ship of the Bacolod City-class LSV, during the at-sea phase of the Balikatan 2008 military exercises.
Photo taken from US Navy c/o Wikipedia.



Utility Landing Crafts:

The PN operates two large utility landing crafts (LCU), both locally made but of different design. The BRP Tagbanua (AT-296) was built by Philippine Iron Construction and Marine Corporation with Propmech as its integrator. The ship was a product of a PN project for a new class of LCU that is expected to form the backbone of the intra-theater sealift capability and a cheaper alternative to the LST and LSV. Unlike the Tagbanua, the other ship BRP Manobo (AT-297), came in to service quietly and was based on a different design. Both ships are relatively new, being both being commissioned during the term of President Aquino.


The BRP Tagbanua, the newest amphibious transport asset of the Philippine Navy.


The PN also operates smaller utility landing crafts that were handed over by the US government decades ago. Of the many that once served the PN, only three ships remain: the BRP Subanon (AT-291), BRP Bagobo (AT-293), and BRP Tausug (AT-295). All are of the US Mark 6 design that were first put to action during World War II.



Other Assets:
Aside from LCUs, there are also several smaller landing crafts being used by the Philippine Navy, mostly the small Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) which are carried by larger amphibious assault ships. Although not really considered as amphibious warfare assets, the PN also operates six Multipurpose Attack Crafts (MPAC) in two sub-classes, which are high speed boats with capability to deploy infantry for insertion missions. More of this boats are being procured by the PN in the coming years, with a 3-unit tender expected to be completed by 2015.



One of the Philippine Navy's six Multipurpose Attack Craft. These are used by the PN as patrol and insertion assets.



Looking at the Future: The Multirole Vessel Saga:

Fast forward to the mid 1990s when the AFP Modernization Act of 1995 was passed into law, part of which were the plans to acquire amphibious vessels to replace those old ones still in service with the PN. Although no specifics were made, the idea points to helicopter capable amphibious landing platforms, either a helipad-equipped landing ship tank, landing ship dock (LSD) or landing platform dock (LPD). 


1990s - The Singaporean Endurance-class LST/LPD:
Plans for a helicopter capable platform was further reinforced with the Republic of Singapore Navy's introduction in the late 1990s of the Endurance-class landing ship tank, which is actually more of an LPD with an LST bow opening. The Philippine Navy sent officers to learn more about the ship as planning dictates towards something similar for its own acquisition plans.


One of the Endurance-class LPD of the Republic of Singapore Navy.
Photo taken from Wikipedia.


Hopes were high on a possible contract for a unit or two with ST Engineering, until lack of funding shot down the plans. The quoted pricing made by the Singaporeans moved up as the Philippine government failed to quickly act on the funding, until the PN can't afford the ship anymore. This was the first of several attempts by the PN to get its hands to a modern amphibious warfare vessel.

The PN continuously looked for ways to acquire a similar vessel but has always looked at the Endurance-class as its basis, until a cheaper alternative came along.



Late 2000s - Arroyo Administration's Multirole Vessels, and Strategic Sealift Vessel Part 1:
During the term of President Gloria Arroyo, plans were made again to acquire at least 1 Multirole Vessel (MRV), which is actually an LPD bundled together with the essential Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) and combat capable equipment which includes a mobile hospital, lorries, landing crafts and amphibious assault vehicles. Several models were taken into consideration, including the Spanish Galicia-class, the Singaporean Endurance-class, and the Makassar-class built by the Koreans for the Indonesians.


An MRV package (1 ship plus all ancillaries) was worth Php 5 billion, as set by the Department of National Defense after their own study and evaluation. Eventually the Philippine Navy planned to get two, both from South Korea possibly using a derivative of Daesun's Makassar-class design, and will be paid by Multi-Year Obligation Agreement (MYOA) which is an financial assistance plan that allows the Philippine government to pay for the product by installment for a few years.


The PN's MRV project during the term of former president Gloria Arroyo.
Photo taken from Timawa.net.


The plan was eventually cancelled as President Benigno Aquino III assumed office and a new policy on re-checking all deals entered by the Arroyo administration was made. The new administration believed that the MRV deal was overpriced and places the Philippine government at a disadvantage.

(More of the MRV project on the link here.)

Aside from the MRV, the Arroyo Administration also started a plan to acquire a so-called Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV), the first time the term was used in a project. The plan calls for the acquisition of a Japanese second-hand civilian Roll-on, Roll-off (Ro-Ro) vessel for troop and vehicle transport around the archipelago and is an interim solution until an MRV will be available for the Philippine Navy. The proposal was made by the Center for Naval Leadership and Excellence, and a specific vessel was already eyed awaiting for approval and funding for the PN.


A Japanese Ro-Ro Vessel similar to this was planned for acquisition as the initial Strategic Sealift Vessel project.
Photo taken from MarineTraffic.com.


The project was also shelved due to the Philippine government's failure to immediately fund the project, and the eyed vessel was sold to another entity. No further attempt was made to look for another Ro-Ro vessel, and instead a new plan was made that calls for the integration of the MRV and SSV project into one, and this is what we now call the Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV) project of the Aquino Administration.

(More of the SSV Ro-Ro on the link here)


Early 2010s - The Current Strategic Sealift Vessel:
The cancellation of the previous MRV and SSV projects paved way to a revised project, closely resembling the MRV project but without the package for ancillaries included which were decided to be acquired separately. This is now the Strategic Sealift Vessel that we know now.

Instead of a government to government route, the DND decided to hold a tender for the 2 ships with a budget of Php 4 billion. The technical specifications released were closely aligned to the Makassar-class LPD used by the Indonesian Navy. Several bidders gave interest although only ultimately only 2 entities submitted - Korea's Daesun which is the original builder of the Makassar-class, and Indonesia's PT PAL which built the Banjarmasin-class, itself a product of Daesun's technology transfer agreement with PT PAL. The Indonesian company later on won the bidding after Daesun's bid was disqualified for lack of supporting documents.


This was said to be the final design of the Philippine Navy's SSV.
Photo taken from kontan.co.id website.

The Philippine Navy's specs for the SSV was previously discussed in an older MaxDefense blog, with the link provided HERE. Compared to the previous MRV project, only the 2 landing crafts will remain as part of the contract, while the rest like the Amphibious Assault Vehicles were offered for bidding later on (which was won by South Korea's Samsung Techwin with the KAAV-7).

The first of class, which is still unnamed, held the first steel cutting ceremony last January 22, 2015, and the is expected to be delivered to the PN on or before May 2016. The second of the class is expected to start construction by mid-2015 and will be delivered by mid-2017. The Philippine Navy's Desired Force Mix whitepaper previously indicated the need for 4 SSVs, so it is probable that the PN will order 2 more similar ships in the future.


Photo taken from the 1st steel cutting ceremony of "SSV-1" last January 22, 2015.
Photot taken from suarasurabaya.net website.



Additional Used Amphibious-Capable Assets:
Aside from the two Strategic Sealift Vessels and their complementary landing crafts, the Philippine Navy were able to seal deals from friendly countries to transfer or sell their excess landing crafts. 

Korean LCU:
The first that came out is from South Korea, with a donation for an unnamed landing craft utility. MaxDefense believes it is a retired Mulgae-class LCU of the Republic of Korea Navy. There are still unconfirmed news that a second unit is being requested, although the news for the Korean transfers are still shady as of this writing. 


MaxDefense believes that the Koreans will transfer one of their retired Mulgae-class LCU, similar to the photo above.


Australian Balikpapan-class LCH:
The second batch of upcoming assets comes from Australia, with the donation of two retired Balikpapan-class Heavy Landing Crafts (LCH), the former HMAS Brunei and HMAS Tarakan. Both were donated by the Australian government and will be fully refurbished and delivered to the Philippine Navy by May 2015. In addition, the Australian government offered to sell three more retired Balikpapan-class LCH, the former HMAS Balikpapan, HMAS Wewak and HMAS Betano, with the offer accepted by the Philippine government at salvage prices.

Several Balikpapan-class heavy landing crafts during an amphibious assault exercises under the Royal Australian Navy. The Philippine Navy will be receiving a total of 5 units.
Photo taken from the Royal Australian Navy website.







With all these incoming assets, it's still not too late for the Philippine Navy. There are even plans to acquire more transport and amphibious assets from other countries, both new and used, due to their capability to transport goods during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Being amphibious warfare assets, their primary mission is to bring in troops and assets by sea during combat operations, so these assets are very important for an archipelagic country like the Philippines.








Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Upcoming Balikpapan-class Landing Crafts-Heavy for the Philippine Navy - A Good Addition to the Fleet

The Australian Defence Minister Mr. Kevin Andrews announced plans to donate two former Royal Australian Navy landing crafts-heavy (LCH) to the Philippine Navy. This is in support of their commitment to improve the Philippines' humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capabilities. The ships involved are the recently retired ships of the Balikpapan-class, the former HMAS Brunei (L 127) and HMAS Tarakan (L 129). According to the Australian Ministry of Defence, the two ships will be refurbished and installed with a new safety and navigation equipment before handing them over to the Philippine Navy. The expected hand-over of these ships can be made as early as May 2015.


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. 



MaxDefense's Suggestion:
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.