Your 1st for Philippine Defense

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Del Pilar-class Frigates: Upgrade Recommendations to Avoid Reclassification as OPV

In an article by the Manila Bulletin published on 24 February 2019, it included excerpts from an interview with Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command (FOIC) Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad discussing about the Del Pilar-class frigates.

The FOIC mentioned that the Del Pilar-class frigates are actually not classified as frigates, due to the absence of certain combat features that can be found on frigates from other navies.

Emphasis was given by the FOIC on the lack of heavy weapons, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes. Currently, the Del Pilar-class frigates are only armed with guns, with the most capable being the Mark 75 Oto Melara 76mm/62 caliber naval gun.

So does it mean to say that the Philippine Navy's Del Pilar-class frigates will not be considered as frigates anymore, and will be downgraded into something else?

BRP Andres Bonifacio (FF-17), one of the Del Pilar-class frigates of the Philippine Navy, as it enters Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii to participate in Rim of the Pacific 2018.
Photo taken from DVIDS.

What Does the Philippine Navy's Own Classification Standard Say about Frigates?

In 28 April 2016, the Philippine Navy released a new Classification, Name, Number, and Categorization of PN Ships, Crafts, Aircraft and Ground Equipage. This is now considered as the Philippine Navy's standards for asset classification. (MaxDefense will discuss more of this new classification standard in a later blog).

In it are the following descriptions:

"Frigate (FF) - it is a surface warfare ship designed for either anti-submarine or anti-air warfare. It has a displacement of 2,000 to 5,000 tons. A frigate can operate beyond the EEZ and participate in naval operations in a high threat environment."

Based on the above description, the Del Pilar-class was designed to allow the conduct of anti-submarine warfare, but it currently lacks the features. Also, it is currently not designed for anti-air warfare. While it has a displacement within the range provided to describe a frigate and also can operate beyond the EEZ, it cannot participate in naval operations in a high threat environment due to its lack of necessary sensors and weapons for offensive and defensive purposes.

Thus, based on the PN's own classification standard, the Del Pilar-class is indeed not a frigate. And thus, PN FOIC Vice Adm. Robert Empedrad is correct. But does being correct based on the ship classification system mean that it is a logical move?

Is a Downgrade on the way?

Last February 2019, MaxDefense found out that the Philippine Navy leadership has already directed the implementation of re-categorizing the Del Pilar-class ships from being "Frigates" to "Offshore Patrol Vessels".

Currently there is no specific category for Offshore Patrol Vessels in the PN Ship Classification Standard, but based on how things were made in other ships, it is expected that the upcoming changes will be made:

* BRP Gregorio del Pilar: from FF-15 to PS-15.
* BRP Ramon Alcaraz: from FF-16 to PS-16.
* BRP Andres Bonifacio: from FF-17 to PS-17.

It is just a matter of time for the Philippine Navy to announce the changes in its classification of the three ships, which MaxDefense expects to happen within the year.

Once this happens, the Philippine Navy will officially have zero frigates, which is a first since the Philippine Navy continuously maintained similar-type vessels (classified as destroyer escorts) in 1967 (the RPS Datu Kalantiaw).

Is a Downgrade Unavoidable?
Was it really necessary for the Philippine Navy to downgrade the Del Pilar-class from frigates to offshore patrol vessels?

From a technical standpoint, it appears to be logical for the PN to reclassify the ships as Offshore Patrol Vessels.

But the real question here is, can the deficiencies be solved or not to avoid such downgrade from happening?

Currently, the Philippine Navy has an ongoing upgrade project for the Del Pilar-class frigate, which is simply called as the Del Pilar-class Frigate Upgrade Project. It is part of the Horizon 2 phase of the Revised AFP Modernization Program, and has an allocated budget worth Php1.54 billion. 

Infographics on the Philippine Navy's ongoing Del Pilar-class Frigate (DPCF) Upgrade project. Photo shared exclusively to MaxDefense.

Currently both MaxDefense sources and FOIC Vice Adm. Empedrad confirmed that the lowest bidder is a UK-based company. Of the 3 invited bidders under the Limited Source Bidding mode of procurement, only Ultra Electronics is UK-based (the others being Sweden-based Saab Group, and South Korea-based Hanwha Defense Systems). Based on our information, Ultra Electronics is scheduled to undergo a Post-Qualification Inspection (PQI) in a few weeks time. Until an award is made on any proponent, MaxDefense won't be discussing much as it as there is no basis on who wins the job.

The point of this project is to improve the Del Pilar-class frigate's ability to see and hear, which is the most important upgrade for any military ship. A warship cannot fight what it cannot properly see or hear, so this is an important step prior to any modernization of a warship's firepower. But having the sensor upgrade is not enough for the ships to be considered as frigates.

Once its done with the sensors, it is more logical to undergo an upgrade that would improve its capability to fight. A weapons upgrade should follow next.

But even Vice Adm. Empedrad mentioned that it would take a lot of money for the Philippine Navy to invest in weapon systems for the Del Pilar-class frigate. Which means that the issue is a now a monetary problem rather than anything else.

So, can the dilemma of the Del Pilar-class frigates be solved? YES, IT CAN BE SOLVED. It's only a matter of giving priority in providing funds to upgrade the ships to include long range and accurate weapon systems, hard

BRP Ramon Alcaraz (FF-16) together with Pakistani Navy tanker PNS Nasr and Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Newcastle in Exercise KAKADU 2014. 

MaxDefense's Recommendations:

Once the frigates are upgraded to allow them to see and hear air, surface, and sub-surface targets better than ever before, there is no doubt that weapon system upgrades should be considered and made. In fact, a weapons upgrade can be made almost simultaneously with the sensors upgrade, which will allow for the savings in drydocking costs instead of doing such upgrade in another timeframe.

Among those weapons that MaxDefense believes could help improve the capabilities of the Del Pilar-class and keep them classified as frigates are the anti-submarine lightweight torpedo tubes, anti-ship missiles, and at least a short range air-defense system. A gun-based close-in weapon system (CIWS) is optional.

But this means some subsystems that were not included by the PN in its upgrade of the Del Pilar-class frigates will need to be updated to support some of the weapon systems.

MaxDefense believes that the best template that the Philippine Navy could follow is the Colombian Navy's upgrade of its Almirante Padilla-class frigates, which are close in capability as the PN's own Del Pilar-class frigates.

Greek naval blogger D Mitch of Naval Analyses has an extensive discussion on the Almirante Padilla-class frigate upgrade, which can be found in their page.

Among those that MaxDefense recommends to be done of the Del Pilar-class ship are actually very similar to the upgrades made on the Colombian Navy frigates, which are as follows:
1. Replace the OTO Melara Mk.75 Compact 76mm/72cal. main gun with the new OTO Melara 76mm Super Rapid with STRALES system

This enables the ship to improve the firepower delivery of the ship by increasing the rate of fire the main gun can do. But the main reason is because of the STRALES system. This new system allows for all-weather engagement of multiple surface and aerial threats with high accuracy by combining the stand-alone guidance system with the new DART guided munition family.

The STRALES was designed to allow more accurate firepower that is not only effective against ships at short ranges, but also against fast small boats, aircraft, and even as a close-in weapon system against incoming sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles. The STRALES upgrade makes the standard OTO Melara 76mm Super Rapid gun into a multi-purpose weapon system for almost all types of threats except subsurface ones.

2. Replace the ageing Mk. 92 Fire Control Radar with a new model. 

The Mk.92 is already ageing and would need a replacement to support new weapon systems. Currently it is supporting the OTO Melara 76mm Compact gun, and if the gun is replaced with the new Super Rapid STRALES gun, using a new FCR would definitely allow the PN to maximize the use of the new gun.

The new FCR could also support other recommended gun and weapon systems, including the OTO Melara 76mm Super Rapid STRALES gun to improve its accuracy and response times.

An example of Fire Control Radar that could be considered is Saab's CEROS 200 FCR, since the Del Pilar-class frigates will be using Saab's Sea Giraffe 3D radar which would be a better match for the FCR.

3. Install a new anti-ship missile system.

A warship's primary purpose is to fight other warships. And in this day and age, the best way to do it is by using anti-ship cruise missiles that can engage enemy ships from more than 100 kilometers away.

The Philippine Navy already has the South Korea-made SSM-700K C-Star anti-ship cruise missile prepared for ordering soon to arm the new Jose Rizal-class frigates. It is also currently in talks with another missile supplier to build up the Philippine Navy's land-based anti-ship missile batteries (which MaxDefense will discuss in a separate blog). 

Having a minimum of two twin missile launchers (for a total of 4 missiles) would be the minimum recommended quantity for the Del Pilar-class although it is better if the Philippine Navy can afford two quadruple launchers instead. The Philippine Navy planners should consider that in any war, the perceived enemy is expected to have more ships to fight against, and it would not take long for these missiles to be expended, thus the recommendation for more missiles.

Since the Del Pilar-class were originally armed with the Harpoon anti-ship missiles during its service with the US Coast Guard, MaxDefense doesn't find any problem in installing anti-ship missiles again, even if its not necessarily the Harpoon.
The MBDA Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missile was originally the favoured anti-ship missile system of the Philippine Navy for its Jose Rizal-class frigates, before shipbuilder HHI overrode the decision. It is still among the best choice in the market today.
Photo taken from MBDA's website.

4. Install a new twin or triple lightweight anti-submarine torpedo launchers.

With the upgraded Del Pilar-class frigates having a new hull mounted sonar for use to detect submarines, while also working with other ASW-capable ships and aircraft of the future Philippine Navy fleet, it is only logical for the Philippine Navy to arm the Del Pilar-class frigates with anti-submarine torpedo launchers.

The Philippine Navy will need a lot of platforms that can conduct anti-submarine warfare since it appears to be the core competency that the Philippine Navy is being formed into. Even if the Del Pilar-class frigate's ASW detection capability is not very impressive, the ship still needs a weapon to allow it to hunt submarines without relying on helicopters or aircraft.

Like anti-ship missiles, the Del Pilar-class doesn't have any problem with having the trainable triple torpedo tubes, since they were used to be armed with such system at a certain time during their service with the US Coast Guard.

A triple torpedo launching system like the one above was already installed on the Del Pilar-class frigates at a certain period of their service with the US Coast Guard. As the ships are being upgraded to have anti-submarine detection capability, it is only logical to arm the ships with anti-submarine weapons to allow for hunting.
Photo taken from

5. Provide for even a short-range air defense system:

While it is expensive for the Philippine Navy to provide a new air defense missile system for the Del Pilar-class, it is still relatively cheap and reasonable to provide at least a short range air defense system (SHORAD) as a minimum to defend the ship not just from helicopters or aircraft, but most of all from anti-ship missiles. While the presence of the OTO Melara 76mm Super Rapid with STRALES is already a good solution, having a SHORAD as a redundant system allows for the ship to have more options in defending itself especially on cases where the STRALES won't be available.

A good example here would be MBDA's Simbad-RC with Mistral SHORAD missiles, which is a standard system in the Jose Rizal-class frigates. Installing 2 of these in each Del Pilar-class frigate would allow for better air defense than totally nothing at all.

The Simbad-RC with Mistral SHORAD missiles is among the most affordable and easiest to install air defense solutions in the market today. It would be better for the Del Pilar-class to have these for air defense and to counter anti-ship missiles than having nothing at all.
Photo taken from MBDA's website.

Is spending on million dollar upgrades logical?

There are concerns from some groups within the Philippine Navy, and also from groups outside the organization who question the logic of spending millions of dollars worth of weapon systems on 50-year old ships. Why would the PN spend that much on ships that are expected to retire in less than 15 years from now? What would the PN do with these upgrades if the platform itself is already on the way to the scrapping yard?

Makes sense actually.

But MaxDefense believes that unless the Philippine Navy plans to acquire other used warships that are newer or younger than the Del Pilar-class frigates, the PN actually has no choice but to make do with what they have.

Why would we compare the Del Pilar-class frigates to ships that the Philippine Navy doesn't have, and doesn't intend to acquire?

Now, if the Philippine Navy does intend to acquire used warships that are younger than the Del Pilar-class, then that is another story. If this is the path the PN wanted to go to, then MaxDefense agrees on just downgrading the Del Pilar-class frigates into Offshore Patrol Vessels, and not have the weapon upgrades that were mentioned in this blog.

Instead, the upgrades should be made on these younger used warships, as they are expected to serve the Philippine Navy longer than the Del Pilar-class.

If the Philippine Navy decides to acquire younger used warships than the Del Pilar-class, then it makes sense for any upgrades to be made on these ships as they are expected to serve longer than the Del Pilar-class. MaxDefense previously received information that the PN is planning to inspect one or two Maestrale-class frigates in Italy within 2019, most likely the Aliseo, Euro, or Espero.
Photo taken from Navy Today.

It remains to be seen though if the Philippine Navy with proceed with its plans to consider used warships from friendly countries, especially that there appears to be scheduled inspections to Italy and other countries within this year.


To sum everything up, while the Del Pilar-class frigates currently lack the firepower and capability to be considered as frigates, up-arming them can be done to meet the requirements of the Philippine Navy. It requires a large financial investment, which could be debatable considering the age of the ships.

But it can be done. Its just a matter of how the Philippine Navy and the Philippine government can provide support especially financial support for the organization to allow itself to meet its requirements. 

While MaxDefense believes that the Del Pilar-class frigates are still capable assets, MaxDefense also believes that it would be better for the Philippine Navy to instead consider acquiring younger used frigates from friendly countries, like the Adelaide-class from Australia, Maestrale-class from Italy, among others, and spend the upgrades for these ships instead.

Also, changes should be made on the Philippine Navy's classification standard. The system should differentiate an Offshore Patrol Vessel from a Corvette. It should also allowing to differentiate older gun-armed ships from missile-armed ships (i.e. gun armed frigates as "FF", missile armed frigates as "FFG").


  1. Hope the italians still trust us to honor our word..

    1. Very unlikely. There is already word from AFP and DND officials saying that the Italians has this different way of speaking to them in a rude manner.

  2. Colombian ship looks like Malaysian Kasturi class frigate to me..are they in the same class?
    BTW why not PAF acquired used MiG-29 from Malaysia?Based on Flight Global 2019, all 16 Malaysian MiG-29 still not retired and they put in active reserve.
    Or another option PAF can ask Singapore for their F-16 that will be replace by F-35.

    1. aka ask US first for permissions for the F-16 SG F-16's are tied with a US yes or No and can only use with clauses see how they required the Pakistan's airforce to abide by an end user agreement with the Pakistan F-16. Doubt if SG will even give that to PH.

  3. Philippine Navy ships lacks weapons to defend itself and its crew. They invest on new ships but does not invest on defensive systems to defend their investment. Why even purchase these expensive equipment if you are not buying an insurance policy to protect them. I think they only purchased these equipment for show or parades. Lol.

    1. Yes, I agree. Philippine frigates should have 12-16 medium range SAMs to protect itself from attack planes launching medium range cruise missiles or ASMs.

      If the budget will be short for those, space must be left in place to allow for installation in the near future. Any vital deficiencies the military will be aware of in their platforms will only be another reason to repeat the infamous "Scarborough Shoal" retreat. So why spend money if in the end, the military and its government will find itself in the same defeatist attitude.

    2. for your information the three del pilar class cutter was given to us by u.s free, but they stripped everything,the korean rizal class frigate ,is well armed to the teeth because we bought it

    3. Sorry to burst your bubble, Ex Hamiltons were not given by the US for Free. These involved transfer of funds in short they were bought. PF15 acquisition was charged from the Malampaya Fund to include logistics provisions for its operation for the first 2 years.

  4. sir max does it mean that maestrale frigate still had a chance? But i thoughPRRD policy of no second hand?

  5. The Navy should be thinking of Defensive weapons systems first for this class and not offensive. Keep the existing 76mm Compacto and 25mm Chainguns and instead of wasting money on very expensive SSM's invest into installing a sound SAM armament. There won't be any money for a CIWS am sure however instead I would go for an Israeli Barak 3 8-cell VLS or a 12 cell MICA VLS SAM system which are far superior for defensive against SSM's which will be multiple. There seems to be plenty of room in B position on this class for a built up VLS SAM.
    Mk 32 triple tubes even with no re-loads would be sufficent for ASW.
    Until this new pair of Missile armed Frigates come in the De Pillar class currently are nothing more than a Coast Guard Force. It's over-time to embrance the Missile Age for the Philippine Navy and get away from this dangerous obsolete mindset of GUN only armed warships. Guns must only be secondary armament systems on large classes.

  6. See, I told ya so. Ya filipinos were criticising me when I advocated that the ex-hamilton class cutters can be upgraded to the level of the Almirante Padilla class light frigates that the Columbian Navy uses. Now ya talking about using the Almirante Padilla class light frigates as a template to upgun the Hamilton class cutters to a Light ASUW Frigate. It's why I believe the Philippines should have taken a page from the Columbian navy in upgrading the Hamilton class cutters to the Almirante Padilla class light frigate standard. I also think they need to take a lesson from Chilean Navy and buy 2nd hand frigates and upgrade them as well.

    1. People were not criticizing your idea on using the Almirante Padilla as a template. They are criticizing the way you speak about Filipinos, and the way you deal with Filipinos. As if you hate them and its obvious.

  7. C an maxdefense publish defense budget as well? We want to know where the money is being spent. We are always bidding here bidding there? Going for the lowest bids? Officials traveling abroad without getting a result? So part of budget are already being spent just travelling overseas staying in hotels airfares food and drinks and without getting results and just speculations and brochures catalogues and list of prices. So where is the defense budget being spent on?

  8. no budget for ships armaments but very big budget on political affairs! what happened to the philippines?

  9. This is why American bases should not have been removed. I don’t trust Philippine politics and even Philippine military. All talks no action. But even if they acquire those assets consider the west Philippine sea lost. Say goodbye to fishing ground and oil. This is the gift of the 12 senators or traitors to the country. Their names should be marked in history as those responsible for the losss of Philippine sovereignty.


Philippine Navy Modernization Projects

Philippine Air Force Modernization Projects