MANILA -- 2018, which will end in a few days time, can be considered as a banner year for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, especially the Philippine Navy (PN), as it formally entered the missile age and demonstrated its capability to sail beyond its territorial waters during deployments to the US, South Korea and Russia.

This is aside from projected deliveries of new assets for 2019, such as the AgustaWestland AW-159 "Wildcat" helicopters and the "Pohang"-class frigate donated by South Korea to the Philippines.

The PN's formal entry to the missile age took place off Lamao Point, Limay, Bataan last Nov. 21, when three of its multi-purpose assault craft (MPACs) fired the newly-acquired and installed Rafael Advanced Defense Ltd. Spike-ER (extended range) surface-to-surface missile during a capability demonstration witnessed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Navy flag-officer-in-command Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad.

During the exercise, the MPACs fired two Spike-ER missile rounds, which hit two surface targets. The said craft also utilized remote-controlled .50 caliber machine guns to neutralize another target.

An AgustaWestland AW-109 attack helicopter armed with 2.75-inch high-explosive rockets also provided air support to the MPACs by firing its weapons. "Impressive. Not one (missile) round was wasted," Lorenzana said in describing the Spike-ER capability demonstration, which he witnessed aboard the BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602).

He said this is no mean feat considering that the seas were quite rough at the time. "(Modern) technology has come to the Navy and we will use this technology to protect our seas," the DND chief emphasized.

A single Spike-ER missile round costs an estimated PHP10 million, which makes accuracy for the PN a virtue.

The first test-firing of the Spike-ER missile took place last Aug. 9 in the same location.

The weapon was fired from one of the PN's three Spike-ER armed MPACs.

The MPACs were constructed by the Subic-based Propmech Corporation and activated on May 22, 2017.

The PN MPAC Acquisition Project entered into a contract with Rafael, through SIBAT of Israel Ministry of Defense, for the supply and integration of the weapons systems to three Mark III MPACs.

On April 15, 2017, Lorenzana approved the Notice to Proceed.

The Spike-ER system, which arrived in the country last April, is the PN's first missile weapon capable of penetrating 1,000-mm (39 inches) of rolled homogeneous armor and has a range of eight kilometers.

More missile-armed MPACs needed to defend PH waters

Empedrad, meanwhile, said missile-armed MPACs can be utilized to defend Philippine waters through the so-called "swarming tactic", where these craft will be committed to engage larger and more capable ships posing a threat to the country's waters.

The PN chief added that the Navy needs an additional 42 MPACs to further enhance its capabilities to defend the country's waters.

"Based on our matrix, dapat magkaroon tayo ng (we should have) 42 of these type of vessels, (the) MPACs. (We only have) nine, (with another) three coming over next year with the same missile capability. So kung sabay-sabay gumalaw yan (If these ships will operate simultaneously), when we are under siege, I think this will do harm to any threat whether internal or external," Empedrad said last Nov. 21 aboard the strategic sealift vessel BRP Davao Del Sur.

MPACs are high-speed naval craft capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots and can be utilized for a variety of naval missions like patrol and fire support missions for troops.

It can also be armed with machine guns, missiles and a variety of other weapons.

In the same briefing, Lorenzana said the Spike-ER missile system acquisition will be followed by big-ticket items like frigates and corvettes, which will also be armed with more powerful and longer-range missiles.

He also added that the Spike-ER is an indication that the PN is now being upgraded and modernized to be at par with its neighbors.

Aside from deterring intruders off Philippine waters, the PN's brand-new MPACs are also ideal for suppressing pirate threats in Sulu waters, the defense chief added.

He added that with its high-speed and modern armament, the MPAC is well suited in neutralizing pirates and other threats infesting the same waters. Empedrad supported this observation by the defense chief as the MPAC's secondary weapn, the remote-controlled .50 caliber machineguns are ideal for anti-piracy missions.

"(The) .50 caliber (machineguns) can be used for pirates. Certainly we will not use (a Spike-ER) missile to destroy (a) small banca na naka-board na Abu Sayyaf, but we can use the .50 caliber machinegun, (it's the MPAC) secondary capability. Automated siya, (and) kahit maalon we can hit the target very accurate(ly)," he added.

And when it comes to using the expensive Spike-ER missiles, Empedrad said that they have a doctrine to use when its comes to the usage of the weapon. "For the missile, we have a doctrine (to follow) when to fire the missile because it’s (worth) PHP10 million. Alangan naman iputok namin sa isang bangka ang PHP10 million na missile, so lugi tayo diyan (Of course, we won't fire on a boat a missile that is worth 10 million. It's uneconomical)," he added.

More missile weaponry in the pipeline for PH Navy

With the successful integration of the Spike-ER surface-to-surface missile in the PN's MPAC squadron, more capable and powerful missile weaponry are now in the pipeline for the Navy, according to Navy spokesperson Commander Jonathan Zata.

"(Yes). It (Spike-ER) ushered the Navy and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) to the missile age and also prepares for the forthcoming acquisition of a more sophisticated and powerful weapons systems and capabilities," he said.

Zata added that the PN will gain more capability to operate modern naval weaponry with the arrival of the Pohang-class frigate next year.

"The Pohang-class frigate from ROK will also be delivered by next year equipped with a better weapons system that the Navy can already use as it prepares for the delivery of the two purposely-built frigates starting 2020," he stressed.

The Pohang-class frigate is equipped with a primary and secondary gun system, sensors and torpedoes for anti-submarine as well as sensors for anti-air operations, Zata disclosed.

Progress steady in construction of Navy's first missile-armed frigates

The construction of the first missile-armed frigate by South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) is proceeding smoothly, Empedrad said.

"(Construction for) our (first-missile) frigate is moving forward, darating na siya sa February (or) March of 2020, all systems go and we should very happy, we should be happy for our country," he said.

The keel-laying for the first-missile-armed frigate took place last Oct. 16 in Ulsan, South Korea while the steel-cutting for the second ship took place last Sept. 17.

HHI is expected to lay the keel of the second frigate by the first quarter of 2019.

The Philippines and HHI signed a PHP16 billion contract for two missile-armed frigates with another PHP2 billion set aside for its weapon systems and munition. The projected delivery date of the first frigate is by 2020 while the second one will be in 2021.

“The ceremony was conducted at the building dock number 6 of the Special and Naval Shipbuilding Division of HHI. Three blocks of the first PN frigate (with HHI Project Number 159) was installed on the dock,” Capt. Sergio Bartolome, the PN officer supervising the project, earlier said.

Keel-laying formally starts starts the ship's construction and is among the four highlights of a vessel's life, with the other three being launching, commissioning and decommissioning.

The keel is also considered the backbone of any ship and breaking or destroying will result in the destruction and sinking of any water craft. The steel-cutting for the first frigate took place last April.

PN blue-water capability boosted thru international exercises

For the first time in its history, two PN ships, the BRP Davao Del Sur and BRP Andres Bonifacio (FF-17), joined this year's "Rim of the Pacific" (RIMPAC) exercises, which took place in Hawaii on June 27 and ended Aug. 2.

Also deployed were around 700 sailors and marines.

RIMPAC is the world's largest joint and combined naval exercise.

The said assets and personnel participated in several RIMPAC exercises, which include helicopter cross-decking, live-fire exercises, a special operations training, ground-air-integration, and replenishment-at-sea among others.

Lorenzana said international exercises like RIMPAC will greatly help in boosting the naval service for prolonged operations at the seas.

"(RIMPAC) is also a good chance for our personnel to experience planning and execution of combined naval operations as well as establish the Navy's capacity for prolonged operations overseas," he added.

Meanwhile, RIMPAC also proves that despite lacking modern ships and weapons, the PN has proven itself capable of operating with its more modern naval counterparts.

"It (the exercise) also validated the age old principle that it's always the men behind the guns that will ultimately make the difference. That inspite of the current capabilities of the Navy we were still able to perform very well and at par with our more modern partners," Zata said.

He added that many lessons can still be gleaned once the after mission report of the PN contingent is submitted and evaluated.

"The Philippine Navy’s participation to RIMPAC 2018 trumpets the Command’s commitment in promoting multilateral cooperation to strengthen relationship and cooperation among participating navies of the world," the PN spokesperson earlier said.

Aside from RIMPAC, the Navy made history with BRP Tarlac (LD-601) making the first-ever port visit of a Filipino warship to Vladivostok, Russia.

The ship and its 300-man contingent aboard left Manila South Harbor last Sept. 21 and arrived in time for her scheduled Oct. 1 to 6 port visit.

During its visit to Russia, the ship and the contingent aboard it participated in several activities, which enhanced their relationship with their Russian counterparts.

Aside from this, PN personnel also got a chance to tour the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine "Komsomolskna-Amure 877" and the Russian Marine Firing Range.

Also, Russian Marines conducted a capability demonstration and had their Philippine Marine Corps counterparts ran obstacle courses and perform pistol firing exercises.

Originally, BRP Tarlac was supposed to participate in the International Fleet Review (IFR), which was held on Jeju Island, South Korea in honor of the 70th anniversary of the ROK Armed Forces last Oct. 11 to 15.

However, the ship experienced engine problems on its way to Vladivostok, forcing it to stay in Russia for two more days to repair the damages.

BRP Tarlac was supposed to leave on Oct. 6 but the damage moved its departure date to Oct. 8.

BRP Tarlac arrived on Jeju Island, South Korea on Oct. 12, a day late for the IFR.

Despite this, Empedrad said the PN contingent was able to attend all other activities in connection with the IFR.

Another Navy milestone, in terms of overseas deployment, is the participation of BRP Dagupan City (LC-551) and the 200-man contingent aboard her in the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMEX) that took place in Zhanjiang in Guangdong, China last Oct. 21 to 28.

The participation of the PN had greatly addressed inter-operability issues between the participating navies.


"Itong exercise (this exercise) will reduce the issue of inter-operability so maganda yung nakakapag-communicate yung barko natin sa barko ng China (and it's good that our naval ships can now communicate with China and other ASEAN navies), so it's a good exercise and hope we'll have more of this in the future," Empedrad said.

And despite being quite dated, the PN chief bared that the crew of the BRP Dagupan City showed their skills and resulted in the PN winning the communication drill exercise.

“Sending one contingent to represent the PN is a strong statement that we are one with the community of maritime nations who believe in unity and collaboration especially in addressing mutual concerns such as calamities that may affect any nation anytime,” the PN chief earlier said.

The ACMEX 2018 was an exercise hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy and the China People's Liberation Army Navy that aimed to promote regional cooperation between ASEAN member states navies and focused on maritime safety and search and rescue at sea with emphasis on the use of Code of Unplanned Encounter at Sea (CUES).

In Zhanjiang, the PN contingent actively participated in activities that served as great avenues for learning and enhanced its relationship with the participating navies.

During the shore sub-phase, activities such as diving operations and seminar exchange, medical seminar exchange, and flight deck familiarization, among others, were conducted.

While on the sea sub-phase, the communication drills, ships group formations, joint search and rescue, cross helo deck landings and replenishment at sea approaches in accordance with the CUES were also conducted. BRP Dagupan City and the 200-man contingent aboard her left Sangley Point, Cavite last Oct. 17 and arrived in Zhanjiang on the 20th.

Commissioned in PN service during the 1990s, BRP Dagupan City has a displacement of 4,265 tons at full load. It measures 273 feet long, has a draft of 12 feet and has a top speed of 12 knots.

Earlier, Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said the proposal for a joint ASEAN and Chinese naval exercise was submitted during the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting in Singapore last February.

Anti-submarines choppers, more air assets for PH fleet

With the pending arrival of the Navy's first two AgustaWestland AW-159 "Wildcat" anti-submarine helicopters by the first quarter of 2019, the PN will now have the capability to detect and engage underwater targets.

"It is a big leap essentially dahil (because) with this capability, we now have this tool (capable) of securing not only the surface waters that we have but also underwater," Zata noted.

Prior to the acquisition of the AgustaWestland AW-159 "Wildcat" anti-submarine helicopter, the PN has no capability to detect and engage sub-surface threats.

"(And with the arrival of the AW-159), we can detect submarines, we can detect underwater vehicles and also the capability to engage underwater vehicles within our territory, so it’s a tremendous leap from our current inventory," Zata stressed.

He said the AW-159 will be based aboard the two new frigates being constructed by HHI and whose deliveries are scheduled for 2020 and 2021.

The PN spokesperson said the aircraft will be fitted with sensors and weapons capable of neutralizing sub-surface threats.

Earlier, the Department of National Defense (DND) said initial flight-testing is now ongoing for the two Philippine-ordered AW-159 anti-submarine helicopters.

The aircraft were acquired for PHP5.4 billion, including its munition, mission essential equipment and integrated logistic support.

"As confirmed by the Commander Naval Air Group. The (first) AW-159 have just started initial test flight as part of the manufacturer's trial. It is still scheduled for a series of test flights before scheduling its handover to the Philippines. According to CNAG, the flight signals the completion of the first unit," Andolong earlier said.

The AW-159 (previously called the Future Lynx and Lynx Wildcat) is an improved version of the Westland Super Lynx military helicopter.

The helicopter has been ordered for the Royal Navy and British Army. It is capable of speeds of 291 km/h (181 mph), range of 777 km (483 miles), ferry range of 963 km (598 miles) and an endurance of one and a-half hours (four hours and 30 minutes if fitted with auxiliary fuel).

The AW-159 can also be armed with rockets, machine guns, missiles, torpedoes and depth charges.

Meanwhile, the PN's surveillance and monitoring capability was boosted with the formal donation of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force of three more Beechcraft King Air TC-90 patrol aircraft last March 26.

"The (donation) is expected to boost the capability of the PN and enhance the capacity of its personnel primarily in conducting maritime security and sovereignty patrols, as the Navy stays true to its commitment to protect the seas and secure the nation's future," then PN spokesperson Capt. Lued Lincuna said.

He added that the PN has more than sufficient personnel to operate and maintain the Japanese-donated Beechcraft King Air TC-90 aircraft.

Some six pilots, along with the necessary maintenance officers, have completed the maintenance training in Sendai and Tokushima, Japan, prior the turned over of the aircraft last March 26.

The TC-90, which is part of the Beechcraft King Air aircraft family, was offered by Japan shortly after the Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology was finalized last Feb. 29, 2016.

The first two TC-90s were delivered to the Philippines on March 27, 2017 while the last three aircraft were handed over to the PN last March 26.

The aircraft have a range of over 1,000 nautical miles, and a cruising speed of 226 knots. These are capable of carrying eight passengers along with the pilots.

As of this time, the Navy is operating around six Norman Britten "Islander" patrol aircraft, five AgustaWestland combat utility helicopters and one Robinson R-22 training helicopter. (PNA)