New naval muscle for the Philippines

Posted on Oct 14 2011

Ed Stephens Jr.

 By Ed Stephens Jr.
Special to the Saipan Tribune

As Saipan watches the west Pacific military situation evolving all around us, here’s a story that will interest many residents: Over the past few weeks the Philippine navy has scored at least one, and maybe even two, additions to its fleet. The first one is a former U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter. The second I’ll chalk as a “maybe” given that only a couple of blogs are reporting the story, namely that South Korea is donating a Pohang-class corvette to the Philippines.

So, avast ye’ mates, let’s do some armchair sailing and take a look at this.

This comes along at a good time for the Republic of the Philippines, which has a whole lot of coast to patrol to begin with, and which is now facing increasingly contested waters. Yet the R.P. doesn’t have a lot of money to throw at the situation. Depending on whose numbers you believe, they spend around $1.8 billion annually on defense.

To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the cost of just one new U.S. destroyer at the cheap end of things, and as for the not-cheap end of things, don’t even ask. More context: $1.8 billion is less than half of what neighboring Malaysia spends on defense, and it’s about one-third of what Thailand spends. The Philippines has a far smaller economy than either of those nations, I’ll note.

Anyway, the point is that the Philippines has a lot of waters to look after, but not much money to float a fleet on.

In August, a retired U.S. Coast Guard cutter arrived in Manila Bay. It’s now dubbed the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and it’s now the largest ship in the Philippine navy. It’s a substantial ship, with 3,390 tons of displacement, it pretty much looks like a smallish frigate.

I don’t know if this class of ship has a sonar, I’ve read varying accounts.

Its main weapon is the Otobreda 76-mm cannon (that’s about three inches in diameter), and some smaller guns as well. If you get bored this weekend run a Youtube search for the Otobreda 76mm, there are some live-fire videos up there. Come to think of it, I’ll post a link at my website for your clicking convenience. The rapid-fire Otobreda makes that stuff at the Last Command Post look a bit dated, eh?

The Hamilton-class cutters can also accommodate a helicopter. Hey, now we’re talking!

I’ve seen accounts that the Philippines might receive more such ships, but I don’t know what’s really in the works for that.

OK, now for a recent rumor, or at least a story that isn’t widely carried, that there’s a South Korean Pohang-class corvette being donated to the Philippines.

Now this is a whole different animal than the Hamilton-class cutter, and it’s also something new to me, so I’m inclined to dwell on it. After all, the Pohang-class looks like it packs more weapons into less space than anything else I’ve ever seen, or even read about.

First of all, we’re talking a very small ship here. About 1,220 tons. Tiny. Such is the domain of corvettes; they are small, and, in fact, the U.S. Navy doesn’t even use them. But, second of all, these little fellows are loaded to the gills with weapons, including either Harpoon or Exocet cruise missiles, and most have two (two!) of those Otobreda 76-mm cannons I just told you about, and they also tote six Mark 46 torpedoes, and the Mark 46 is no bargain-basement special, by the way, but is instead a very serious piece of hardware.

And I’m not done yet. For close-in sessions with nosy neighbors, there are, depending on the model, either twin 30mm or twin 40mm cannons.

Holy smokes! All of that is packed into a vessel smaller than most fishing boats I’ve worked on.

They also employ hull-mounted sonar for anti-submarine operations. And, speaking of subs, it was allegedly a North Korean submarine that sunk a Pohang-class corvette, the Cheonan, in March of last year.

How does this floating arms bazaar even move? They stuffed a giant LM2500 jet engine in it, that’s how. Anyway, though I don’t really know anything about these tiny ships, they speak to me: They’re all muscle, and all business.

That’s the kind of thing you’d expect from the Koreans, whose warship engineering tradition dates back to the late 1500’s. Yes, really.

Alas, we’ll just have to see if this Pohang-class donation rumor is true.

Such is my regularly irregular look at our region’s emerging military situation. So our virtual voyage is over. I’ll take off my plastic eye-patch now, and I’ll offer a barrel of grog to the entire crew, even to landlubbers and scalawags.

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at Ed is a pilot, economist, and writer. He holds a degree in economics from UCLA and is a former U.S. naval officer. His column runs every Friday.

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