Surface Forces: Filipino Navy Goes Big Time

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August 7, 2020: In July 2020 the Philippines Navy put into service BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150), the first of two South Korean frigates that were ordered in 2016. These cost $169 million each and are smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate.

The Jose Rizal class frigates are 2,600-ton ships armed with a 76mm gun and a SMASH 30mm autocannon RWS (Remotely Operated System). This Turkish system using the American Bushmaster 2 cannon. It has 150 rounds of ammo that can be fired singly or at up to 200 rounds a minute (3-4 a second) at targets up to three kilometers distant. The Italian 76mm cannon is also RWS and can fire 85 rounds a minute at targets up to 20 kilometers distant. Rizal is equipped to handle a CIWS (close in weapons system) like Phalanx but is not yet armed with one. There are also mounts for four 12.7mm machine-guns.

The Rizal is called a missile frigate because it has lots of missiles. There are four South Korean anti-ship missiles (sort of improved Harpoons) with a range of 160 kilometers. There are also four South Korean 320mm lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes with a range of 19 kilometers. There are two twin-launchers for Mistral heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles with a range of six kilometers. There is also space for an eight cell VLS (vertical launching system) but, as with the CIWS, the fire control system can handle these if installed. There is also a hanger and landing pad for a helicopter. There are also two RHIBs (rigid inflatable speedboats) for landing parties.

Leaving out the CIWS and VLS cells and using the simpler Mistral anti-aircraft missiles kept the price down. The Rizal can also handle a towed sonar but does not have one. There is a sonar built into the hull. There is a 3-D air search radar as well as a navigation radar, a fire control radar and an electro-optical tracking system. The Rizal has a crew of 65 with accommodations for twenty more sailors and 25 passengers. Top speed is 48 kilometers an hour and range is 8,300 kilometers. Endurance is 30 days. While the Rizals are capable to long-range cruises, most of their time will be spent patrolling coastal waters and the Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) which extends 360 kilometers from the coastline. Given that the Philippines consists of 7,600 islands, there is plenty of coastline. Some of those islands are in the South China Sea and claimed by China.

The Rizal is an example of South Korea becoming a major exporter of modern weapons. South Korea began expanding its domestic arms industries in the 1990s and was soon building its own tanks and other armored vehicles as well as small warships. South Korea was already one of the largest ship builders in the world and expanding that to include warships was an opportunity taken. The first FFX entered South Korean service in 2013 and six are now active. The FFXs are 3,200-ton ships and are each armed with a 127mm gun, eight anti-ship or cruise missiles, three torpedo tubes, a RAM anti-missile/aircraft launcher, and a Phalanx anti-missile gun system. There is space aft for two helicopters. The ships are highly automated, requiring a crew of only 140. Top speed is 61 kilometers an hour. Range is 8,000 kilometers. Most of the equipment (including electronics) and weapons are locally built. South Korea plans to build 18-24 FFXs. These will be built in batches of six to eight ships with each batch containing upgrades over previous batches. The six FFXs cost about $233 million each and the second and additional batches will be more expensive because of improvements over earlier batches. This is a common practice now with U.S., Chinese and European warship builders. The United States had always done this, but mainly because throughout the 20th century the U.S. usually built larger numbers of each class ship over a longer period. In some cases, construction went on for decades with dozens of ships built. It was inevitable that there were lessons learned from the earlier ships already in service and, based on these, modifications to the initial design were made.

South Korea planned to export the FFX to navies who want high quality, low cost, warships. Meanwhile South Korea also developed a slightly larger FFX II frigate and subsequent FFXs will be this version. But for export customers, South Korea will make smaller versions as it did for the Philippines. This approach was pioneered by European shipyards and later adopted by Russia. When the Philippines first (2013) went looking for someone to build their new frigates they received proposals from Indian, Spanish, German and three South Korean firms. The finalists were one of the South Korea firms and the Indian shipyard. South Korea had the edge in building its own warships and well-built ships in general and that was a decisive factor.

South Korea also donated one of its recently retired Pohang class corvettes to the Philippines in 2019 and there are discussions about sending a second retired Pohang as well. These transfers are largely good-will gestures to nations that are or might become customers for South Korean products.

While the Pohangs were built for anti-submarine warfare, they were only really effective against the 20 or so larger ocean-going North Korean subs, which are all elderly, noisy boats that rarely go to sea. Most of North Korea's 90 subs are much smaller than the ocean-going ones and operate along the coast. These shallow waters have more currents and a lot more underwater noise. The Pohang's sonar, while adequate on the high seas against noisy older boats, is very inadequate close to the shore. Even before a Pohang was sunk in 2010 by one of these smaller North Korean subs, there were efforts to find and install more powerful sonar in the Pohangs. No suitable sonar system could be found that would fit. And even if a new sonar did fit, it would weigh so much more that it would unbalance the ship. This is a problem for the Philippines because most of the South China Sea is shallow water as are all the coastal waters of the Philippines. China has a lot of modern diesel-electric subs. Despite all that the Pohangs are still useful for patrolling coastal waters and dealing with armed intruders.

The Pohangs are small ships built in the 1980s. They are only 88.3 meters (290 feet) long and displace 1,200 tons. The crew of 95 operates a large number of weapons. There are four Harpoon anti-ship missiles, two 76mm cannon, two twin-40mm autocannon, six torpedo tubes (each with a Mk46 324mm/12.75-inch anti-submarine torpedo), and twelve depth charges. Max speed is 59 kilometers an hour, cruising is 28 kilometers an hour. Endurance is about ten days.

Between 1983 and 1993 24 Pohangs were put into service. One Pohang was retired and turned into a museum ship. Another was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Most of the others have been donated, scrapped or used for target practice. Some are in reserve and most of these will be scrapped unless other countries are interested in a retired corvette. The remaining twelve Pohangs are wearing out and are all due for retirement by 2030.

 


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