The Thing About Downgrading Del Pilar Vessel's Fleet Classification

The Philippine Navy made a decision that influences the setup of ships that it obtains currently on its fleet where they recategorize these vessels because they are somewhat justifiable on its current state and capabilities. This by any matter influences the way things may go soon in terms of fleet categorization.

BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) sails in the foreground together with
USS Wasp (LHD-1) as part of the annual Balikatan Exercise Operations.
Image courtesy of DVIDSHUB.

Reports come along across defense-related and other media platforms as the Philippine Navy comes at a decision to downgrade the classification of the Del Pilar-class vessels, once part of the U.S. Coast Guard as the Hamilton-class high-endurance Cutters.

From its once classification of Frigates, the 115-meter vessels are now considered as Offshore Patrol Vessels or OPVs. The decision was made from the basis of the ship's current capabilities as it lacks the necessary tools to become a frigate such as anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine components that are available on the ones still being built in South Korea for the fleet. 

This currently reduces the number of frigates serving in the fleet from three to zero and will remain that way unless the new Jose Rizal-class will be delivered from its South Korean shipyard or the upgrades that the ships will obtain may comply to the basic necessities of having such capabilities required to reinstate its frigate status. 

While it is a good thing for the ranking officials to recategorize their fleet composition to reflect the current capabilities that the organization obtains at the present date, this also reflects the fleet's lack of capability seen on a modern navy where these are being mitigated and considered under the AFP Modernization Program where plans such as buying submarines, corvettes and frigates come at play with the third one getting realized somewhere by the year 2020 and 2021.

While it may seem devastating or disappointing with regards to this decision made by the Philippine Navy, let us take note that they did it based on reflecting its current capabilities which at some way may help them provide or address the needs that the fleet sees in acquiring the tools which help carry out its mandate. From here, let us provide the points about the good and the bad side that this decision will have on the fleet's capability in carrying its mandate.


Here are some of the idealistic points and ideas that have arisen from the decisions made by the Philippine Navy to the overall role of the Del Pilar vessels that it currently obtains wherein it provides the insight with regards to its capability and also its potentials of having the improvements, perhaps in the near future.

The Upgrades

One of the discussions that have tackled with regards to these ships is the plans to upgrade its capability in terms of its sensors and perhaps to be supplanted with necessary tools that may help itself reinstate its Frigate status once again.

Before proceeding, let us provide this article written on this website that deals with the Idealistic Up-Arming of the Del Pilar class which was considered back then as a Frigate. Click this highlighted link leading to the article.

Take note that just recently, it was reported by another defense outlet that Hanwha bagged the award for the upgrade for the sensors and Combat Management System for the ships which were recently categorized from FF down to PS class of vessels. 

Take note that this involves a discussion we provided last time about the similar upgrade program which tackles primarily on the components on the ships which includes these essential ones: Combat Management System, Hull Mounted Sonar and Radar Electronic Support Measures or RESM

Given the South Korean company's "win" in bagging the contract, chances are they will provide the same Combat Management System which is the Hanwha Systems Naval Shield ICMS that the Jose Rizal-class Frigates may also come up with. 

Take note that this simplifies the logistics chain between the ships but it comes with uncertainty with regards to its capability as the Naval Shield may obtain the issues with regards to its compatibility with other naval components available in the market. 

The inclusion of the said upgrades may perhaps help revert its status once again to a Frigate especially with the ships obtaining the features which are primarily capabilities such on antisubmarine detection with the Hull Mounted Sonar or anti-air detection such as the US-pipelined SAAB Sea Giraffes that two out of three Del Pilar ships will be fitted later on. 

These things are if the sensors suffice the Navy's requirement to be a Frigate which may go problematic given that the current upgrade process doesn't come with weapons systems like anti-air weapon platforms such as a Close-in Weapons System or CIWS, anti-ship missile platforms that the Jose Rizal-class will soon have which will be fitted the form of C-Star or "Haesong" AShM, and Torpedo Launchers such as the one from SEA J+S that also the Jose Rizal-class may come with.

From here comes the overall uncertainty to what extent these vessels may come upgraded with given that it obtains the potential to be a Frigate - at least a light one just as Colombia's Almirante Padilla-class Light Frigate with all of the weapon components it obtains that fits its description.

That uncertainty is with regards to the heightened probability on Fitted For, But Not With (FFBNW) components perhaps if we are to look long term to the ship's capability development and its role within the fleet given its size and space that may accommodate the upgrades. 

Hence, it might only be certain with time to the path the Del Pilar vessels may partake, weapons upgrade-wise.

On Naval Statuses

This decision to downgrade the ships of the class provides a very important fact to the fleet setup which is the necessity to address its shortcomings especially on the composition of the fleet as well as the capability it needs to provide at least the minimum capable deterrence it desires under their Sail Plan 2028 initiative.

The said initiative actually calls for combatant units to be purchased and eventually to put them into service so as it aims to have a formidable force present on the high seas that represent the country's resolve to defend itself before any threats, especially with the Coast Guard vessels being the first in line given their civilian character that minimizes the likelihood of getting provocations along the process.

On the bright side, reducing the current number of frigates to zero arises the necessity to have one aside from the currently work-in-process units that are being built in South Korea. 

From this point of view, it might be the chance for the ranking echelon to convince the necessity to purchase at least a more decent frigate that the organization deserves, complete with its array of weaponry without the worry of having it classified as a separate add-on component more commonly known as a "Fitted For, But Not With" rule. 

It comes with in-depth planning with lessons gathered from the first Frigate Acquisition Project that produces the Jose Rizal-class variants from South Korea. 

Such a procurement planning with a carefully-drafted specification, the Navy may come in a way to have a new class or line of ships that is suited to the mission that determines its role, in a way that the first builds provide the baseline for the succeeding units in production. 

This setup will be a thing if the government is more than willing to provide the necessary budget to carry out this highly-promising project for the organization for itself to push through, where there is the willingness to provide the tools needed to carry out and improve or provide what it means to protect the country's maritime domains.

That being said, it may be a promising thing for such a nice proposal or plan to take place where if the plans for more assets are to consider, given that full support for the original plan before the budgetary cuts or a bit more to that gives the Navy the capability for minimum deterrence. 

Take note that they set aside the Second Horizon Frigate Acquisition Project for the Corvette equivalent due to the Budget slash that the whole Armed Forces experienced that renders the sets of priorities needed for them to have the necessary tools that are in demand at a shorter time.

At present, the Philippine Navy fleet currently composes of patrol boats and vessels with several of these units traced themselves back to the second world war. Take note that some of these old ships were decommissioned without any replacement. 

Hence, the decision in itself gets supplementary to the needs of the navy in having an offshore patrol vessel in a way that it covers the role of several of the decommissioned ships in traversing and traveling the waters. 

To know more about Philippine Navy fleet composition and the ideas for its desired growth, please kindly read our article on this page entitled "The Perspective on the Status of the Philippine Fleet".

On Its Role

It is worth taking note that the Philippine Navy decided to downgrade the Del Pilar-class vessels is due to its lack of capabilities that a Frigate needs to have in terms of getting a fight against air, surface and submarine threats.

Having such capabilities makes these vessels more of a valuable target for the enemy to fire upon, where its loss definitely means a lot for the fleet especially on having such valuable classification which defines its capability in dealing with threats in a situation.

Hence, it is just as worthy to reclassify it from its original Frigate status wherein it primarily comes as an interim platform for the incoming Frigates from South Korea where sailors may have time gathering the skills needed to operate a larger combat ship, a thing that is lacked on World War 2 vessels that the Navy still obtains at present. 

So while being a large offshore combat vessel which goes parallel from its original role when these vessels were with the United States Coast Guard, its service partly serves as a training platform for the personnel to familiarize the work environment especially living at sea for days where its range and endurance are an advantage that a portion of the country's coastline is also being patrolled in the process.

Given the inputs, such a decision may give sense especially on putting it to its current classification wherein it may serve more on patrols in the meantime while things remain to be seen to any plans for it to have a significant upgrade that may help regain its former classification.

Despite these things, there are still hopes and dreams for the fleet to have as it still pursues its Modernization goals in a way that the reclassified ships in their own design still obtains the space for development where on the prerogative of the chain may provide the tools it needs to be a more capable combat vessel which may reinstate its frigate status later on.

BRP Andres Bonifacio off the coast of Palawan. PDA Stock Image Photo.

There are still good things and realizations about the decision made by the Philippine Navy in a way that will help the organization improve its fleet setup, paving the way for more capable vessels in the years to come.

In this way, it may mean a lot for the fleet to improve its composition of ships in a way that they deserve better platforms to attain the desired Sail Plan as part of the country's overall approach for minimum credible defense posture against various threats that have posed danger on the country's sovereignty and integrity. 

So, what remains now is on doubling the efforts of Modernization in a way that more tools and upgrades may get provided along the way that will satisfy the resolve of having a formidable fleet that protects the country's geographical setup that relies more on the protection of the nation's territorial and EEZ waters in accordance to national and international laws.

Hence, it is an interesting thing to see on the future plans that the Navy sets for its fleet composition where like the rest of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is something that may provide the necessary tools they deserve to continuously carry out their duties and responsibilities. 

Hopes, dreams, and aspirations remain in a way that all of the efforts on the undertaking is for the betterment of the country's safeguard of its national security that guarantees peace, safety, and territorial integrity.

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