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Friday, January 4, 2019

With Del Pilar-class Frigates Scheduled for Upgrades, Here Are Proposals to Address Ship Shortage of the Philippines Navy

On 29 August 2018, the Philippine Navy's flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar (FF-15), a Del Pilar-class frigate, was steaming en route to Palawan from patrols in the West Philippine Sea when it was grounded on the shallow water surrounding Hasa-Hasa Shoal in the Kalayaan Island Group.

According to reports received by MaxDefense on the incident, among those damaged were parts of the hull, although the main problem was on the starboard side Controllable Pitch Propeller of the frigate, although the port side also incurred minor damage.

On 04 September 2018, the frigate was pulled out of the shoal, and was towed to Subic Bay for assessment and repairs. It was also noted that the US Navy, through its Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) will provide assistance as the ship is covered by the PMS 326 International Fleet Support Program wherein ships provided by the US will be provided assistance by the US government.

While the last media statement released by the Philippine Navy last October 2018 mentioned that the BRP Gregorio del Pilar will be operational soon, MaxDefense received a not-so good news on its actual status.

One of the Hamilton-class cutters, similar to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar (FF-15) frigate of the Philippines Navy, as seen here with a Maestrale-class frigate of the Italian Navy. The Philippine Navy faces an upcoming shortage of major naval assets and both class of ships we're proposed within the Navy to beef up the fleet.
Credits to the original source of the photo.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar (FF-15) as it was grounded in the Hasa-Hasa Shoal in Kalayaan Island Group last August 2018.
The ship is still under repair and isn't expected to be back until late 2019 or 2020 if upgrades are not done on her.
Photo taken from Philippine Navy sources.

Credits and taken from Concept News Central.

How is the BRP Gregorio del Pilar?

Based on information we received, the frigate was already out of dry dock but is just docked but is clearly non-operational. (MaxDefense would defer naming it's current location due to OPSEC reasons), and has only completed repairs on the minor damages including the hull breach.

But no considerable work has been done yet on the major damage which is on the starboard propeller. Apparently the damaged parts were only removed from the ship last November 2018, and has not been shipped to the US for inspection and assessment by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), and the entire process of shipping, assessing, repair or replacement, re-shipping to the Philippines, installation, testing and commissioning, may take several months to do.

Thus, it is safe to assume that BRP Gregorio del Pilar will be out of action for most or even the entire year 2019.

A good barometer will be the Nigerian Navy frigate NNS Thunder (F90), which is a sister-ship of BRP Gregorio del Pilar as it is also a Hamilton-class ship. It was grounded also in 2016, and although we do not have complete details on the damage, it took 2 years for the Nigerians to bring her back to service. This was because of lack of spare parts that stretched its stay in the dry-dock as it wait for parts to arrive from abroad. The BRP Gregorio del Pilar may also experience the same issue.

And with FF-15's absence, the PN is left with its other 2 Del Pilar-class frigates, as well as two of the three the Jacinto-class patrol vessels (PS-35 and PS-36) which are expected to fully return to service by 2019 (PS-37 will undergo a lengthy dry-dock works to do the JCPV Phase 2 works and is expected to be active again by late 2019 or early 2020).

Del Pilar-class Frigate Upgrade Project:

Aside from the repairs of BRP Gregorio del Pilar (FF-15), another upcoming reason for the rest of class to be non-operational for some time will be the upcoming Del Pilar-class Frigate (DPCF) Upgrade Project, which was planned to proceed in 2019.

It would be remembered that MaxDefense previously posted about the said project, whose Invitation to Bid was released just this month. The project's bid opening has been rescheduled to 15 January 2019, based on the Pre-Bid Conference held just before Christmas.

Among the works included in this project is for the winning bidder to supply and install a new Combat Management System (CMS), a Radar Electronic Support Measures (R-ESM), a Hull-Mounted Sonar (HMS), as well as integration of the government-supplied equipment like the Saab AN/SPS-77 Sea Giraffe AMB 3D radar, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), FLIR SeaFLIR 230 EO/IR system, and all existing subsystems of the frigates.

The diorama above from the Philippine Navy shows the upgrades that the Del Pilar-class Frigates will have, including those to be made using US FMS/FMF projects and AFP Modernization project.
Photo shared exclusively to MaxDefense.

The works are expected to last for several months or even more than a year for each frigate, and the works will involve the removal of the frigate from active status, which means a reduced capability for the Philippine Navy for a time.

Since BRP Gregorio del Pilar is already dry-docked due to the grounding repair works, it is but logical for it to be the first to undergo the upgrade works. But this means an extended time of being offline, which means any upgrade work will guarantee that BRP Gregorio del Pilar could be out of action for the entire 2019 and even most of year 2020.

MaxDefense believes that the Philippine Navy will implement the upgrade to just 1 ship at a time, as doing it altogether would be disastrous to the Philippine Navy's operational capabilities and deployment plans considering its very modest fleet composition.

Retirement of World War II-era Warships:

Another problem that the Philippine Navy needs to tackle is their deadline to retire the fleet of World War II-era warships that are still in service.

Currently there are still 2 Rizal-class minesweeper frigates (MSF), and 5 more Malvar-class patrol craft escorts (PCE) in service, both classes of which were considered as corvettes in the Philippine Navy. Both classes are nearing almost 80 years in age, and cannot continue serving any longer.

It would be remembered that based on the Philippine Navy's own Sail Plan 2020 and recent press releases and statements, they intend to retire all World War II-era warships by 2020, which is already next year.

Their replacements, the upcoming Corvette and Offshore Patrol Vessel acquisition projects, are still in the planning and pre-procurement stages and won't be completely delivered to the Philippine Navy until 2023 at best, that's if the contract for both projects would be signed by 2019. It would normally take 3-4 years for the Corvettes, and probably the same for the OPVs to be delivered after contract signing and finalization of Critical Design Review (CDR).

The Philippine Navy placed a deadline for retiring all their WW2 ships by 2020, that's next year. Between now and then, the only ships coming online are 2 new frigates and a Pohang-class Corvette. Which isn't enough to cover the loss of assets.
Credits to original source of photo.

Delays in Jacinto-class Phase 3 Upgrade and Repair of BRP Artemio Ricarte (PS-37):

This is among the less considered reasons on why there is an obvious shortage of ships in the fleet.

Not only are the Phase 3 Combat systems Upgrade of the Jacinto-class patrol vessels delayed due to unexpected administrative issues, but the delay in the implementation on the Machinery Repairs of BRP Artemio Ricarte (PS-37) has effectively taken out the entire class from service in 2018, and may also be out of action for the whole year of 2019.

MaxDefense expects the upgrades on BRP Emilio Jacinto (PS-35) and BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS-36) to be fully completed early this year, although MaxDefense expects PS-37 to be out of service for almost the entire year.

Based on reports we received,it may take at least a year to do the machinery repairs, and the work has not yet started as of this blog entry's writing.

Delays in Pohang-class Corvette Transfer, Repair and Delivery:

This is another issue that was very much discussed in our pages last year, the delays in the delivery of the Pohang-class Corvette ROKS Chungju.

As we mentioned before, the funding release for the Php250 million needed to allow the transfer of the ship to the Philippine Navy from the South Korean government took so long, and the entire process afterwards also was sluggish.

As of this writing, even the deployment of PN personnel to South Korea has not yet started although they intend to leave within the 1st quarter of 2019 and have the ship delivered to the Philippines by 2nd quarter 2019.

Still, the delays we're staggering for such a simple project, an example of why MaxDefense is fearful on the implementation of any plan to keep the PN well equipped despite the shortage of assets.

Proposals for the Fleet:

Despite the arrival of a Pohang-class corvette next year, it was concluded that the Philippine Navy will indeed face a shortage of major naval assets in 2019 up to 2020. Thus, several proposals are raised on how to deal with the ship shortage.

Among those proposed were the acquisition of used platforms using emergency funds, grants, military assistance, or special support from the government.

"But isn't it Pres. Duterte's policy not to acquire 2nd hand military equipment?"

While it is the president's policy, it appears that the AFP is not following it either.

It would be noted that the Philippine Air Force is scheduled to acquire 2 refurbished C-130 Hercules heavy tactical airlifters from the US, while also paid for 2 OV-10G Combat Dragon and 2 OV-10A Bronco light attack aircraft, all refurbished and also from the US.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Army is also in the process of acquiring used M113A2 armored personnel carriers that will be the platform for their upcoming Mortar Carrier acquisition project.

So what difference is it for the Philippine Navy to acquire 2nd hand equipment if that's the only solution for a Navy that needs additional assets urgently but lacking in sufficient funds.

1.  Additional Hamilton-class Cutters from the US Coast Guard:

The most anticipated proposal is for the acquisition of additional Hamilton-class cutters from the US Coast Guard, considering the Philippine Navy already has sufficient experience with the type, and will have no problem accepting another unit of this ship class.

Currently there are still three (3) Hamilton-class cutters in service with the US Coast Guard and are expected to be retired soon as their replacements become available. These are the USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717), USCGC Munro (WHEC-724), and USCGC Midgett (WHEC-726).

But are they readily available for transfer to any country?

According to Cmdr. Chuck Hill's blog discussing on the Hamilton-class ships, the USCG may retire USCGC Midgett in 2019, USCGC Mellon by 2020, and USCGC Munro by 2021. These were taken from the Office of Ship Disposals Annual Report posted in 2016.

Based on the information above, it appears that this is possible if the Philippine Navy and Department of National Defense (DND) submit a request to Pentagon, and approved by the US government. Any proposal for additional Hamilton-class ships should be supported by JUSMAG Philippines, which MaxDefense believes won't really be a problem.

It would also be noted that many other countries including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria might be competing with the Philippines for the ships, considering Sri Lanka just received one recently, while Vietnam also has 1 with the coast guard and would probably request for additional units too.

The US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter USCGC Midgett (WHEC-726) is said to be scheduled for retirement in 2019. The US will definitely offer it to a foreign government. Chances are, the Philippines may be among those who will submit their interest to acquire the ship, and may be competing with Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

2. Request for Addtional Pohang-class Corvette:

MaxDefense previously posted several times in its Facebook page and in some of its blog entries that the Philippine Navy is interested in acquiring more Pohang-class corvettes, in addition to the one already donated and is being refitted in South Korea at the moment (ROKS Chungju).

Philippine Navy force matrix reports in the past showed that to become relevant and meaningful, the fleet should have at least 3 ships of the same class, and this also applies to the Pohang-class corvette. Having one ship of the class would make it irrelevant in terms of maintenance, logistics and support.

The good news is, apparently the Philippine Navy already requested for a second Pohang-class corvette with the South Korean defense ministry, and current proposals by the Navy's top officials are for the Philippine Navy through the DND to request a third unit as well.

A second Pohang-class corvette was already requested by the Philippine Navy through the DND from the South Korean Ministry of Defense. Apparently, there is no approval or reply yet on the request. But should it be approved, it is only but logical for the Philippine Navy to request for a third unit as well, to complete their projected force matrix involving the Pohang-class. But the PN and DND should work faster in securing funding that would be used for the transfer of the said ships, as the transfer of the first ship, the ROKS Chungju, was terribly delayed due to red tape and slow process in the Phlippine government's funding request and releases.
Credits to owner of the photo.

It should be noted that among the discussions made by the South Korean and Philippine defense ministries in the previous SK-PH Defense Joint Committee Meeting a few months ago is for South Korea to donate another Pohang-class corvette to the Philippines in return for the acquisition of the KAI KUH-1 Surion utility helicopter by the Philippine Air Force. But recent turn of events may not point to this anymore  as the PAF selected America's Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk instead.

It is still unclear if the South Korean defense ministry approved the requested second Pohang-class corvette, which will be a gauge if a future request for a third ship is possible.

But MaxDefense has concerns regarding this. It should be noted that the donation of the 1st Pohang-class corvette suffered tremendous delays due to red tape and funding difficulty with the Philippine side, resulting to negative feedback from the South Korean side. The Koreans may not be very keen in providing another corvette if the Philippine side will not take immediate action to provide funding and start the refurbishing and training activities like what happened with the ROKS Chungju. Non-approval of the second unit request will speak a lot on how the South Korean side view the Philippine side's seriousness considering they can't even hasten the allocation and release of a measly amount for a donated warship.

3. Interest in the Oliver Hazard Perry-class Frigates from the US or Adelaide-class from Australia:

Another offer that was made years ago and was reconfirmed recently is from the US government, for the Philippines to accept some of their retired Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates that are currently mothballed and awaiting its fate in the US mainland. Apparently the offer is for at least 3 ships to be given for free to the Philippines, but the Philippines will be paying for the reactivation and rehabilitation of these ships, which could cost around $60-100 million per ship depending on the ship's condition and the systems to be fitted in, or probably more if the PN includes several more subsystems with it.

The US still holds several Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates in mothballed status, ready to be sold, scrapped or sunk. The US apparently offered to provide at least 3 of them, but the Philippines will have to pay the costs of bringing them back to operational status, and modernized to a level acceptable to the Philippines and US standards.
Photo taken from Foxtrot Alpha page.

Based on MaxDefense's information, the US might also be willing to shoulder part of the expenses and to be billed on the annual military assistance program of the US to the Philippines.

MaxDefense previously mentioned that the offer was made as late as when US Defense Sec. James Mattis and 2 other US Cabinet officials wrote to Pres. Duterte regarding the US offer to sell arms to the Philippines. While the focus of Pres. Duterte's announcement about the offer was on the fighter aircraft and attack helicopter angles, the frigates were also among those in the list. Advance information about the offer was made as early as during the Rim of the Pacific Exercises in Hawaii several months ago.

In addition to the American offer, it was also noted that the Philippine Navy took some interest in the Adelaide-class frigates of the Royal Australian Navy, which are essentially Australian-operated Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates with better weapons and sensor fit, and probably less beaten up than their American counterparts. HMAS Melbourne (FFG 05) and HMAS Newcastle (FFG 06) are still in service and could be retired and offered for sale very soon. But since they are quite new (only commissioned in 1992), they might be only available for sale by 2022 and beyond. Another hull, HMAS Darwin (FFG 04) was already stripped and won't be possibly for sale to other navies anymore.

The Adelaide-class frigate HMAS Melbourne (FFG 05) darting its way on a rough swell. The ship is still in active service but is expected to retire soon as more Hobart-class destroyers become online. The only problem is it might not be available for sale in 2019 or 2020, as they are expected to serve longer.

The problem with this offer is that the Philippine Navy is "allergic" to ships that do not use diesel engines as its main propulsion. Both the Oliver Hazard Perry-class and the Adelaide-class uses an all gas turbine propulsion, which is something the Philippine Navy is trying to avoid. The PN believes that should they take the offer, the ships would end up as port queens as they would not be able to afford to operate them as often as they wanted.

And while the cost of ships are pretty acceptable, the lengthy preparation for the ships means that they can probably be delivered only after 2 years from signing the agreement. Which won't really help the PN address is ship shortage issues at the earliest possible time. But their arrival would be beneficial in the medium to long term plans of the Philippine Navy to improve its capabilities especially in anti-submarine warfare, which are the ship's greatest asset.

4. Returning Interest on the Maestrale-class frigate of the Italian Navy:
This might be surprising to many, but MaxDefense has sufficient information that confirms the return of interest of the Philippine Navy with the Maestrale-class frigates of the Italian Navy.

It would be remembered that the prior to the decision to acquire new frigates, the original proposal was for the Philippine Navy to acquire at least 2 of the Maestrale-class frigates after their retirement from Italian Navy service. But it was later decided to go for new frigates after shipbuilders submitted their proposals to the Philippine Navy, and the Philippine Navy backed out of their almost-complete deal with the Italians, which made relations sour.

It would be noted that the Italian Navy has retired 3 of their 8 Maestrale-class frigates: the lead ship Maestrale (F570), Aliseo (F574), and Euro (F575). Apparently all 3 are still intact and are to be sold off to other countries. Another one, the Espero (F576) was already released from active duty last 31 December 2018, and is expected to be formally retired in 2019 and may have the same fate. MaxDefense recently posted on the Italian Ministry of Defense's confirmation that the Aliseo will indeed be for sale.

The Aliseo (F574) is among those placed on sale by the Italian Ministry of Defense to other countries. It still remains to be seen how much are the Italians willing to let go of the ship, considering they are considered old and would only be of interest to countries who are in either urgently needing ships, or cannot afford new ones.
Photo taken from K B's Flick page.

The Maestrale-class are actually the best used frigates that the Philippine Navy can acquire - it uses a Combined Diesel or Gas (CODOG) propulsion, are newer, more modern, and better equipped than the Hamilton-class, and are cheaper to sustain than the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

Currently many of its subsystems are obsolete and may need replacement soon. This is where the Philippines is expected to spend a lot if they decide to acquire one or some of the Maestrale-class frigates. Previous assessments made by the Philippine Navy inspection team also noted this 6 years ago, so definitely the same assessment could be raised again.

But the Philippine Navy may opt to continue using thes ship's current subsystems as long as they work. If the Italians are able to work with it for the next 3 years (the Italian Navy plans to retire the last of the class by 2023), then definitely the Philippines can do the same. Upgrades for the subsystems can be done once the Philippine Navy receive their new frigates, corvettes and offshore patrol vessels. Anyway, the Philippine Navy can't do anything either since budget for any upgrades aren't expected to be available soon.

The main issue will be the having to convince the Italians that the Philippine Navy is serious should it enter into a deeper understanding with the Italians in acquiring the ship.

It should be remembered that, short of a contract, the deal was already considered a done deal by the Italians. And the Filipinos backing out was an outrageous for the Italians.

The Italians may have lost trust of Filipinos especially in this deal, and they might not take Filipino interest in the ships very seriously. And with this, the Philippine Navy may just need to work extra harder to even just make the Italians listen.

Another issue is the purchase price: would the Italians play hard to get again with these frigates and price them unreasonably high for its age and condition? Or will they be more considerate this time since the ships have aged almost 6 years more since the time the PN has been talking to them about these ships? And also considering the previous acquisition of Italian-made products like the helicopters from AgustaWestland / Leonardo by both the PN and PAF in the past few years.

There is already an impending plan by the PN to visit the ships in Italy for inspection within the next month or two.

6. For the Philippine Coast Guard to Step Up Further to Cover the PN's Deficiencies:

Another proposal raised by the Philippine Navy is for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to stand up and cover the deficiencies of the Philippine Navy, considering they are modernizing their fleet as well, even faster than the Philippine Navy. The PCG is expected to receive a brand new 84-meter Offshore Patrol Vessel from OCEA of France by August 2019, which is to be named BRP Gabriela Silang, which could be used by the PCG for long range patrols in place of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.

It would also be noted that the PCG has shown interest in ordering a second 84-meter OPV from OCEA, while also has an impending project to build 2 new 90+ meter long Offshore Patrol Vessels from Japan. Both these would only be probably available for service by 2021-2022.

It would be difficult for the PCG to step up that quickly considering most of the modernization projects underway with the PCG only involves small boats, mostly less than 18 meters in length, and are only applicable for inner coastal operations. MaxDefense will discuss one important modernization project of the PCG in a future blog.

The Philippine Coast Guard is expected to receive its ordered 84-meter Offshore Patrol Vessel from France's OCEA, which will be called the BRP Gabriela Silang (8401) by August 2019. But it may not be enough to cover the PN's deficiencies although it still helps compared to having nothing at all.
Photo taken from OCEA's website.

7. To Delay the Implementation of the Del Pilar-class Frigate Upgrade Project:

There were also some who prefer to delay the implementation of the Del Pilar-class Frigate Upgrade Project until more ships become available. This means that the PN would only focus on repairing the damaged BRP Gregorio del Pilar and put her out to sea as fast as possible, while all other ships of the class will continue as they were.

This actually doesn't solve the dilemma that the PN has over the BRP Gregorio del Pilar for the year 2019, considering she will be out of service whether they do the upgrade or not.

This also means that the potential cost of upgrading the old frigates will go up, and the budget allocated now won't be enough once they start with the project in 2020, while also making the budget allocation get expired since the current funding rules only allow the allocation to be available within 12 calendar months. Should the fund expire, the Philippine Navy will have no choice but to request for funding again from the DND, which in turn will submit the request to DBM.

MaxDefense believes that this is not a smart proposal at all.

Solutions are Abound, so What's Next?

While there are several proposals, all of them require a common denominator to be implemented.

First of, how good is the Philippine Navy in being decisive in making a united decision, and for it's leadership to be strong enough to push forward it's needs?

Currently the PN's leadership is more of a "yes" man that relies too much from what was asked of him to do? And not what the organization needs to do. Can this be changed especially when the organization's requirements are at stake?

Second is the financial capability to back such plans.

The funds to acquire even used ships isn't small, and it isn't normally easy even for the national government to come up with funds in a few months time. If we follow the usual procedure, it would probably take almost a year or more before funding becomes available, then the negotiations between the two sides will probably take several months more.

And lastly and equally important, is the ability of the Philippine government to have that political will to provide these assets, as its Navy face shortage in naval assets for this and next year.

Will the DND be very supportive of such plans, without thinking of personal interests? Will Pres. Duterte be open to the proposal of acquiring used assets despite his "No Second Hand" Policy? And if he is, would he use his position to allow a swifts process of funding and procurement? Or will his people look at this again with personal interests in mind? Or will Pres. Duterte have his hard headed ways again and continue to feed his ego by believing that his policies are always right?

In the end, what matters is that the Philippines Navy needs help, and while they do not say it, it's really easy to see that the reduction of two major warships from it's minuscule fleet size would have a negative impact to the overall naval capability of the country.

While present solutions aren't really as good as what everyone hopes for, the PN is already caught in a situation that was the effect of under-investment in the military for the last 40 years. All we can do is find ways to solve it until the system stabilizes and the positive effects of modernization and investment in the military can be felt at a longer term.


Del Pilar-class Frigate Upgrade project 

End User: Philippine Navy (Offshore Combat Force)
Modernization Phase: Revised AFP Modernization Program Horizon 2 phase
ABC: Php1,540,000.00
SARO Release: to be updated
Status as of this writing: Limited Source Bidding to proceed, tentative bid opening 15th January 2019
Selected Proponent: None yet
Contract Price: none yet, to be updated.


  1. really disappointed with the lack of decision and foresight with the PN leadership....prioritizing glory-hound submarine dreams instead of what is actually needed at the moment

  2. The weakness of the Philippines is its presidents.

  3. Lets be blunt. You want to have a credible, organized and modern Philippine Navy, then start by removing that pesky greedy presidential adviser from the equation. Budget is limited and not enough good only for one. KAYA MAMILI KAYO PARA BA SA ISANG TAO O PARA SA MARAMING TAO SA NAVY ANG MAKIKINABANG NITO? Ngayo ko rin nakita na compare sa red tape ng past administration that I hated turns out that this administration is worse if not worst of all. Just being blunt in my opinion.

  4. Thank you Max for all your interesting blog entries.

    Have a blessed New Year!

  5. Has the PN considered the Fearless-class patrol vessels from Singapore? Granted that these are not frigates but we need more hulls.

  6. Dear MaxDefense, I am a curious mind who enjoys seeing the development and growth of countries like Turkey and Philippines. I very much enjoy reading your blog and find it easy to understand, so thank you for that.

    I would like to hear your opinion about the recent MoU between Turkey and Philippines, and the acquisition of Milgem Corvette.

    Thank you in advance.


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