Defending the Philippine Navy’s Hamilton-Cutter Purchases

(Updated September 26, 2015. See bottom of the page for the complete revision history)

The PF-15 BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, the lead ship of the Del Pilar class of ships of the Philippine Navy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The PF-15 BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, the lead ship of the Del Pilar class of ships of the Philippine Navy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Along with the praise, there has been SOME criticism also about the Philippine Navy’s purchase of the Hamilton-class Cutters from the US. Most of the criticism centers around the fact that these are old, 1960s era ships that were sold to us as second hand, and also that as warships they don’t have the equipment and weapons to stand toe-to-toe with China’s war vessels. I do agree with the second observation as these cutters only have limited sensors and their main armaments are only the 76mm guns, which is a bit lacking in this day and age of missile technology. However, these Hamiltons do have some good qualities also, which I shall try to enumerate below.

‘Fantastic Bargain’
The first thing about these Hamilton-cutters are that at around 3,000 tons[1], they are the HEAVIEST armed Warship the Philippines has ever had. True, there are Landing Ship Transports (LSTs) or other logistical vessels that are way heavier than the Hamiltons, but if you are talking about armed warships with at least heavy guns, then nothing beats these Hamiltons in the Philippine Navy’s history. [2][3]

So, what did it cost for the PN to get the heaviest armed warships since its inception? A measly USD 10-15 Million per ship. [4] In contrast, a NEW ship of the similar type and weight, like China’s F-22P Frigate, for example, costs over USD 200 Million,[5] or almost 20 TIMES as much.

If you ask, so what if these are the heaviest armed warships ever in the Philippine Navy? They are still not able to match up against China’s missile-armed ships. Well, the good thing about having a large warship is its flexibility in terms of capability. There are a couple of possibilities you can do with it, there is a lot of growth in terms of potential. For example, the Hamiltons as they are now, without any modifications, they would make as outstanding OFFSHORE PATROL VESSELS (OPV).

‘The OPV Concept’
Just a quick refresher: As its name implies, an “OPV” is a vessel you want to patrol your offshore territory, and one of its biggest asset would be its ENDURANCE. You want endurance because you want your vessel to patrol large areas of your territory for long periods of time continuously, and these Hamiltons are excellent for that role because they were DESIGNED for endurance, with their 26,000km range or ability to go out for 45 days (that’s at least 1 1/2 months) before going back to port to refuel and restock food supplies. [1] Nothing else in the PN’s inventory even comes close to that kind of performance.

The only disadvantage of these OPVs or High Endurance Cutters like the Hamiltons is that since they are optimized for endurance, they need to ALLOCATE more SPACE and WEIGHT for FOOD, FUEL and CREW COMFORT, and that means less space and weight for weapons. Hence for the same size and weight, they are generally lightly armed compared to other ships of the same weight optimized for combat. [6] Because the Philippines is surrounded by large bodies of water, there is a need for these high-endurance vessels to patrol our seas. In fact, the PN in their proposed “Desired Force Mix” wanted a total of 18 OPVs in their fleet to be able to effectively patrol all of our territories at sea. [7]

OPVs are not necessarily designed to sink other large ships, they act more like “Policemen” designed to look for enemy or criminal activity, and apprehend them if they can. And just like Policemen, if they encounter a more heavily armed opponent, they stay back and call for reinforcements, like the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams. “But”, you say, “these ARE supposed to be our SWAT teams, our frontline weapons against China”. Well, I disagree. The DND procurement will NOT stop with these Hamiltons, more capable “SWAT” teams will be available in the future, whether they are in the form of newer and better armed Frigates, or Attack Aircrafts with Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs).

‘Frigate’
These Hamilton ships could also be modified or “up-armed” to have missiles in its inventory so they can compete with China’s warships effectively, but that would entail additional costs. The cost will depend on how many missiles and type of missiles would be put on the ship. As it is, as described above, you won’t be able to put too many other weapons on them since most of their space and weight are occupied by fuel, food, and living space for the crew. It is possible to allocate more space and weight for weapons, but these would possibly require modifications, which in turn would only add up to the cost and at the same time sacrifice some of the ship’s endurance capabilities.

Being designed in the 60s, these ships also lack the clean and stealth profile of modern ships, which are designed to reduce radar signature and making it harder for opposing radars to spot and track them from distance. It maybe possible to make modifications on the hull to achieve this end, but from a practical point of view such modifications will add more costs, and end up with a profile that is largely untested and could just result in problems elsewhere.

Despite these issues, I think these Hamiltons will still make good Frigates, ESPECIALLY as possible REPLACEMENTS for the World War Two relics we still have floating around. The PN still has one Cannon-class Frigate, two Auk-class Corvettes and six Admirable-class Corvettes, [2] all of whom are at least 68 years old. Whatever limitations the Hamiltons have as Frigates, they would still be WAY, WAY better than any of these old ships.

As missile-carrying Frigates, the PN can look as an example the USCGS Mellon, which was armed with Harpoon ASMs and torpedoes to serve as proof of concept for the feasibility of adding such types of weapons in this ship class. [8] An even better example would be what the Bangladesh Navy will be doing with their Hamilton, which they intend to turn into a heavily armed Frigate with AShMs, Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), Torpedoes and Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS),[9] Like us, their Hamilton will also be the heaviest ship in their navy[10] and it has been renamed the “BNS Somudro Joy” as their flagship.

‘Further Acquisitions’
I think the PN should look to acquire even MORE of these ships. Their USD 10 million price is excellent, I doubt if we could find a better deal for a 3,000 ton warship anywhere else in the near future. The US Coast Guard still has eight of these in service, [11] which they will plan to slowly retire in the next couple of years with a newer and better National Security Cutter (NSC). [12]

The only main issue with acquiring more of these Hamiltons is that we will be COMPETING with other countries to get them. Nigeria and Bangladesh have also been recipients of these Hamilton ships, and they have been VERY happy with theirs. No doubt they will mount strong lobbies to get more ships, and we will have to compete against them for that. We already have two, I think we can go for four more to bring our total to six. Having six of these in our inventory would mean at least two will be on active patrol, with two ships in repairs or as reserves, while another two will be on off-duty.

‘Parting Shot’
These Hamiltons definitely are a SIGNIFICANT addition to the Philippine Navy, despite their limitations. Whether as OPVs, or as Frigates in replacement of our WW2 relic ships, these Hamiltons with their long endurance and 76mm gun no doubt VASTLY improve the capability of our country’s defense. Not only were they a worthy investment, we should seek to get MORE of them if we can because once what window of opportunity of acquiring these retiring Hamilton ships closes, we will NOT likely find such a situation again where we get very capable ships, for such a low price. If this is not done, it will likely just end up with taxpayers costing MUCH more to get ships of similar capability in the future.

SOURCES:

^[1] BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF-16), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRP_Ramon_Alcaraz_%28PF-16%29

^[2] List of ships of the Philippine Navy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ships_of_the_Philippine_Navy

^[3] List of decommissioned ships of the Philippine Navy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_decommissioned_ships_of_the_Philippine_Navy

^[4] Phl spends $15 M on 2nd US Hamilton-class cutter, http://www.philstar.com/breaking-news/2012/10/08/857700/phl-spends-15-m-2nd-us-hamilton-class-cutter

^[5] More Chinese Frigates Please, http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htsurf/articles/20100813.aspx

^[6] Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV), http://www.amiinter.com/pagex.php?pg=vesseltypes#offshore_patrol

^[7] Philippine Desired Force Mix, http://youtu.be/gYijAkw0Smw

^[8] USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USCGC_Mellon_%28WHEC-717%29

^[9] BNS Somudro Joy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BNS_Somudro_Joy

^[10] List of ships of the Bangladesh Navy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ships_of_the_Bangladesh_Navy

^[11] Hamilton-class Cutter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamilton_class_cutter

^[12] Coast Guard Stakes Its Future on National Security Cutters, http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2012/January/Pages/CoastGuardStakesItsFutureonNationalSecurityCutters.aspx

**********
Revision History:
(1) July 26, 2013: Originally posted
(2) September 26, 2015: Fixed dead links, and also updated the Footnotes to the latest standard.
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13 thoughts on “Defending the Philippine Navy’s Hamilton-Cutter Purchases”

  1. I really do agree with this statement , eventhough we put all together the old PN fleet against this one hamilton class cutter still no match. These cutter can blow all of our old PN fleet! am i right? and it terms of price these cutter PN had very good deal about this ship, the brand new of this will cost us 4billion php. barely not even a 76mm oto melara is not even included, so Lets thank the leader for pursuing the modernization of our AFP!

    1. Well, the WW2 ships that the PN do have 76mm cannons, but they don’t have computerized fire control systems hence they are not as accurate, nor do they fire as fast. They are also slow, with top speeds of only between 16-20 knots maximum, while the Hamiltons have top speeds of 29 knots. They also don’t have anywhere the range of the Hamiltons …

  2. You are perfectly correct! The country needs 2 to 4 more these cutters but perhaps if they can afford a couple modern frigates with missile tech to back up these cutters in case of major conflict, it will
    great. It is about time that the Philippines will be able to stand itself
    to defend from outside threat.

    1. The Philippines is going to be bidding for 2 brand new Frigates soon, hopefully within the year. The budget is P18 Billion or over USD 400 million for the 2 ships …

  3. I agree with you admin to get more Hamilton for the price of 10-15 million each. If we can get the rest of the fleet then go for it….Coast Guard can definitely use them for OPV purposes…

  4. In Wikipedia I provided citation to your articles about acquisition of Hamilton-class cutters.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USCGC_Morgenthau_%28WHEC-722%29

    I served on a Hamilton-class cutter in Operation Market Time. (We had RR and ship repairs in Subic Bay, including Olongapo, which was supposed to be off limits to U.S. sailors 🙂

    As you know, even though these cutters are being phased out, some are still in use by the USCG (including the ship I served on, which is now home-ported in Hawaii). The ships remain in service because the Hamilton-class cutter remains a capable and useful ship. In other words, these are NOT ready for the scrap heap.

    Yes, technologically these 40+ year old ships sound dated, but all received significant modernization in the 1980s and 1990s (including, for example, replacing the WWII 5″ canon with a more modern gun, crew quarter improvements, electronics upgrades and updates). IMO this fleet modernization took 20 years off the age calculation of these ships.

    Bottom Line: At the time the Hamilton-class ships were commissioned they were NOT considered warships. The ships were designed to fulfill a wide range of missions, from search and rescue, law enforcement, and military duties.

    Delisting the ships and selling them to other nations did not instantly transform them from all-purpose cutters into warships. Although some military, like the Bangladesh Navy, are heavily arming their Hamilton-class cutters, these worthy ships remain boats that perform a wide variety of functions.

    No navy is going to use these cutters to launch a major sea-based offensive. (Besides, that’s not how modern warfare is conducted.) These cutters are like a Swiss Army knife, capable of doing lots of things. The ships’ new owners should configure the ships accordingly.

    Even though they will become the pride of many fleets, they should not be compared with warships.

    1. ItsMichaelNotMike, thank you very much for linking my blog to that Wikipedia article, I highly appreciate it.

      As for the issue of our Hamilton-class cutter being called a “Warship”, we are going by the definition of the United Nations of a “Warship” which is: “A ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.” (http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part2.htm)

      Under this definition, the Hamilton under Philippine service can be defined as a “Warship”. Now whether it will be a good naval “Combatant” is another matter …

    1. The only notable and known upgrades on these ships is the installation of a Mk 38 Mod 1 cannon on the stern of the BRP Del Pilar and the installation of the Mk 38 Mod 2 cannons on the Port and Starboard sides of the BRP Alcaraz …

  5. the hamilton is capable to carry anti ship missiles, phalanx and submarine warfare. This was demonstrated by the USCGC Mellon. if our 2 del pilar class was only provided a budget for re-installation of this advance armaments we could have at least a truly 1 missile guided frigate by now with a lesser cost.
    it is good we have a bidding for 2 brand new missile frigates but for necessity we could have pursued the modernization of our del pilar class, for a shorter period of time we could have an operational missile guided frigates.

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