By 2028, the Philippine Navy is expected to field at least 12 vessels, including OPVs, corvettes, and frigates, from South Korea.
In 2016, the Philippines ordered two brand-new frigates from Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). The procurement of the Jose Rizal-class frigates marked a new era for the Philippine Navy, which previously relied on ships from the Second World War and Cold War. Since this initial order, Seoul’s successes in providing the bulk of Manila’s newfound maritime capabilities have only expanded.
Amid increasing regional tensions, particularly in the West Philippine Sea and the Luzon Strait, Manila is modernizing its military capabilities through the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program (RAFPMP). Many of the new assets being procured are related to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) shift to Territorial Defense Operations (TDO), which aims to orient Philippine forces toward more conventional and higher-end threats. Some examples of procurements made by Manila to address this new focus include Israeli Long-Range Patrol Aircraft and Indian BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. For warships, one of the most important acquisitions made during the modernization program, South Korea has established itself as the Philippines’ premier supplier of ships.
Korea’s Role in Manila’s Naval Modernization and Expansion:
Before the recent influx of Korean vessels and upgrades to the fleet, South Korea was already involved in supplying the Philippine Navy. During the Cold War, the Republic of Korea Navy handed over two Second World War-era destroyers. These were reportedly cannibalized to help maintain other ships in the fleet. Twenty years later in the ’90s, South Korea transferred eight Chamsuri and twelve Haksaeng-class patrol boats, which were known as the Tomas Batilo and Conrado Yap classes respectively. However, these transfers paled in comparison to recent efforts by Seoul.
Since 2019, the Philippine Navy has received three South Korean warships. These include the two Jose Rizal-class frigates, BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150) and BRP Antonio Luna (BRP-151) ordered in Horizon 1, the first phase of the RAFMP. South Korea also donated the Pohang-class corvette ROKS Chungju (PCC-762), now known as BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39). All of these vessels belong to the Philippine Navy’s Offshore Combat Force (OCF), the command responsible for territorial defense and maritime patrol missions. The OCF’s six other vessels include three Gregorio Del Pilar-class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) and three Peacock-class corvettes. These Cold War-era vessels were transferred or sold to the Philippines from the United States and United Kingdom respectively. The two classes have received various improvements over the years, with the latest upgrade awarded in 2019 to South Korea’s Hanwha Systems for the upgrade of the three Gregorio Del Pilar-class OPVs.
By 2028 the OCF is expected to have eight to nine more ships, a one hundred percent increase in assets, added to its command. All of which are coming from South Korea. HHI won contracts to construct the next batch of modern warships for the Philippine Navy in 2021 and 2022. In total, HHI is to deliver two corvettes by 2026 and six OPVs by 2028. An additional Pohang-class corvette is also slated to be transferred to the Philippines as confirmed by Philippine officials, although this is in question as the transfer was supposed to take place in 2022.
Collin Koh, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, explained to Naval News why South Korea has such an advantage in supplying the Philippines with vessels and naval systems.
“I believe it’s to do with some intersecting factors here. The first is cost-effectiveness – Korean naval systems were considered bang for the buck. This concerns not just build costs but also the after-sales service support, given the geographical proximity compared to vendors in the distant West. The second factor is commonality in systems and equipment that also eases logistics requirements compared to operating and maintaining platforms and systems procured from a diverse array of sources. Quality-wise, several SE Asian navies have operated Korean-built assets for some time and the equipment had been deemed to be generally reliable. The advanced capabilities inducted by the ROK Navy in recent decades have also helped in such exports.”
Collin Koh, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
This shift to Korean-built warships is unprecedented, as the Philippine Navy’s main supplier of corvettes and frigates before RAFPMP was the United States. However, given the lack of mothballed ships and the cost of buying new ones from its traditional security ally, Manila has looked elsewhere for its maritime needs. Although the U.S. still plays a major role in assisting the Philippine Navy through capacity-building measures, such as training and joint exercises, foreign suppliers provide the service with affordable and modern solutions.
However, it should be noted that Seoul’s efforts have not come without controversy. This was infamously seen in the Jose Rizal-class Combat Management System (CMS) saga, which revolved around if the frigates’ Korean CMS would be Link 16 capable when they were delivered. In the end, Link 16 compatibility with Hanwha Systems’ Naval Shield ICMS was not achieved by the time the first frigate entered Philippine service. While the issue seems to have been resolved, this delay may have hampered the Jose Rizals’ abilities to communicate with other AFP assets.
Another issue with the frigates is the lack of armament expected from a ship of its classification. Despite being called a guided missile frigate by the Philippine Navy, the two vessels of the class have limited missile armament and no vertical launching systems. Even though the ships are the most modern in the Philippine Navy, their capabilities are severely behind regional contemporaries. This issue is mainly attributed to the lack of funds allocated for their armament, as Manila has a tight budget for the acquisition of brand-new assets.
Balancing Between Roles
The problem is further complicated by the scale of modernization and new roles the Philippine Navy has to cover. Koh stated that the Philippine Navy was “chiefly preoccupied with internal security and over the decades,” which in turn “neglected on building a credible warfighting capacity.”Yet as the service attempts to modernize, it still has to contend with the internal security missions it has traditionally done.
“The Philippine Navy will still be saddled with a wide multitude of constabulary and warfighting responsibilities, which means emphasizing upon offshore-capable, multi-functional assets. Recent procurements appear to head in that direction. However, modern multi-role naval platforms are costly, and therefore the numbers that can be procured on a limited budget would be small.”
Collin Koh, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Koh further elaborated that due to the costs, the Philippine Navy may not be able to procure the necessary number of vessels to achieve its mandated mission, and therefore the service should “coordinate and work more closely with other agencies.” Aside from its Navy, Manila has the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Resources. Both agencies, with their own fleets and personnel, are responsible for law enforcement duties and general patrols of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and could be useful in supplementing the Navy in certain tasks. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for example already plays a key role in the West Philippine Sea as recently seen with their escort of resupply missions to BRP Sierra Madre. Koh highlighted that transferring more constabulary roles to the PCG and its fleet of dedicated patrol vessels could allow the Philippine Navy “to focus on conventional warfighting tasks.”
Compared to the Philippine Navy, the PCG has its own dedicated suppliers of patrol vessels via funding from the Department of Transportation as well as committed foreign supporters. Since 2016, the agency’s fleet has received 16 patrol vessels from Japan and France through loans and foreign funding. This material support, especially from Japan and other partners, is only expected to increase as the PCG’s role in standing up to Chinese actions in the South China Sea becomes more well-known.
As Manila enters Horizon 3, the third and last phase of RAFPMP, it has stated that many of the planned procurements made from 2023-2028 will be focused on TDO. Further orders of warships are expected during this time period, which will most likely be awarded to HHI considering the composition, experience, and past dealings done with the South Korean company. However, one bid that might see Seoul falter is the Philippine Navy’s Submarine Acquisition Program.
South Korea’s Hanwha Ocean is going up against various foreign competitors for the bid. Yet compared to them, particularly France’s Naval Group and Spain’s Navantia, the Korean offer is fairly unknown. While core details, such as the offer of two DSME 1400PN submarines, a submarine base, and a soft loan with one hundred percent financing, these pale in comparison to what foreign competitors have released to the public. Naval Group told Naval News details on their offer to the Philippines in June, while Navantia unveiled their plan to Inquirier in August.
Regardless of the submarine bid’s outcome, South Korea’s role in the modernization and expansion of the Philippine Navy is clear. If not realized today, then it will be clearly seen by 2028 when two-thirds of the service’s blue water command originated from South Korean yards.
Aaron-Matthew is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He is currently studying International Relations at American University, and is interested in U.S. Marine Corps developments in the Pacific and Philippine Naval modernization efforts.
This article first appeared in Naval News. Click here to go to the original.