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The Philippine navy is currently undergoing a modernisation drive. Photo: EPA-EFE

Philippine navy seeks ‘dream fleet’ in South China Sea, buys two South Korean warships to ramp up maritime defences

  • The navy hopes the corvettes worth US$556 million will boost its maritime strength in the resource-rich waterways where Manila faces a dispute with Beijing
  • The acquisition is part of the country’s effort to modernise its navy which is largely dependent on allies to counter China’s maritime assertiveness
The Philippines signed a deal with South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries to buy two corvettes to form part of the navy’s dream fleet and to increase its defence capabilities amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

While the navy’s long-delayed plan to modernise the force called for the addition of 10 missile-capable corvettes by 2023, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala said that the two purpose-built small warships “will definitely improve the navy’s capability in terms of anti-air warfare, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and electronic warfare.”

“Corvettes normally have high endurance and sophisticated combat management systems,” Zagala said.

“They are also capable of high speeds for rapid transit and manoeuvre and complement well our assets meant for maritime presence and defence.”

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Defence chief Delfin Lorenzana, who signed the US$556 million contract on Tuesday, said the deal with the South Korean shipbuilding giant will “ensure commonality and interoperability with our existing assets” as well as “ease of maintenance.”

Max Montero, a Filipino-Australian defence blogger, said the corvettes would enhance the navy’s capabilities, including providing a more comprehensive air defence system and slightly better sensors, which its current ships lack.

“The new corvettes are small warships optimised for combat operations within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” said Montero, who is also a systems consultant with a foreign military organisation.

They are capable of surface and anti-submarine warfare missions but are for defensive, not “open ocean” operations, he added.


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The Philippines earlier purchased two Hyundai-built frigates – the BRP Jose Rizal in 2020 and the BRP Antonio Luna this year – after the first deal was stalled for three years due to a controversy over which company should supply the vessel’s combat management system.

Manila resolved the issue by giving the South Korean firm the right to choose the supplier of the subsystems.

Retired rear admiral Rommel Jude Ong recalled that “the corvettes to my prior knowledge before I left office were improvements in the Jose Rizal-class frigate design.”

He said the weapons and associated systems will be similar, which will “facilitate the training of personnel, the equipment’s maintenance and the sustainment of the systems on board.”

“These corvettes will be critical assets in protecting our maritime interests in the West Philippine Sea in particular and along our entire EEZ surrounding the archipelago, in general.”

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The West Philippine Sea is part of the South China Sea that includes the Philippine EEZ and all its claimed maritime areas west of the country, which Beijing disputes.

Analysts said the Rodrigo Duterte government’s decision to source the vessels from South Korea could also have been swayed by the fact that Seoul donated a decommissioned Pohang-class corvette to Manila in 2019. It was later renamed BRP Conrado Yap or PS39 and used for training.

“PS39 is still a highly-capable platform,” Colonel Zagala said.

“With its armaments and equipment on board, it can deal with surface, subsurface and air threats.

“At the time of its arrival, PS39 was considered to give the navy a boost in anti-submarine capabilities and the capacity was activated with the deployment of two Agusta Westland anti-submarine helicopters.”

Hyundai Heavy Industries’ shipbuilding dock in South Korea. Photo: EPA

But military historian and defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio cautioned that ships built in South Korea “have never been combat-tested, compared to American and Russian systems.”

He also pointed to the survivability of the Pohang-class vessels after a corvette was sunk by a suspected North Korean submarine in 2010.

While South Korea had “no extended history of naval warfare, they have a respectable naval capability aside from [building commercial] maritime vessels,” he added.

Zagala was upbeat about the progress in the navy’s modernisation plans, saying “it is on track in developing and acquiring advanced capability that would meet the country’s territorial defence requirements in the West Philippine Sea.”

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Retired naval officer Ong, who described his former unit as “still a work in progress”, said most of the force’s revitalisation programme has been delayed due to the diversion of funds to address the Covid-19 pandemic response.

He added that the delivery of two corvettes and six offshore patrol vessels that were recently approved by the defence department will “take years to complete depending on the contract terms with the shipbuilder”.

At the moment, defence blogger Montero said, compared to Myanmar – which has one-fifth the Philippine GDP – the former possessed more missile-armed frigates, small attack boats and two submarines, while the latter “only got two frigates with missile capabilities, no submarines, small naval air arm, and ships that are mostly old and outdated.”

Custodio, the military historian, said the Philippine navy is “in transition” as it retired all its second world war-era ships [donated by the US], and it now has “less than 10 large surface warships, while the rest are transport and small attack vessels.”

A US navy’s guided-missile destroyer transits through the South China Sea in November. Photo: US navy

“The corvette is considered the smallest of a small warship and because China will always outmatch the Philippines in terms of assets, it will have to depend heavily on strategic relations with its allies,” he said.

“With more ships, we can at least play a credible role in securing this part of the region in cooperation with our partners.”

Since President Duterte assumed office in 2016, he has considerably cooled down relations with the US, Manila’s traditional security ally, keeping interoperability and joint military training exercises between the two armies to the bare minimum.

But repeated incursions by China inside the Philippine EEZ, however, have recently made him to embrace Washington.