Upgrading the Philippine Navy’s Hamilton Ships

Revised January 24, 2014. See bottom of the page for the complete revision history

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As of this writing, the 2nd Hamilton-class Cutter (the BRP Ramon Alcaraz) acquired by the Philippine Navy (PhN) has finally arrived on Philippine shores, with the first one having arrived in 2011 (the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar). They are capable ships, the largest and heaviest armed ships in the history of the PhN, but for me they will still need to be upgraded by acquiring new equipment and weapons for them to be able to serve well in defending the Philippines’ territories at sea.

‘USCGC Mellon as Blueprint’

The USCGC Mellon with full weapons. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The USCGC Mellon with full weapons. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I think the PN will have to look at the USCGC Mellon as guide or blueprint for upgrading these ships. What happened was that starting in the 1980s, all Hamilton-class ships underwent a “Fleet Rehabilitation And Modernization (FRAM)” programme, and initially the programme sought to include better capabilities for these ships like Anti-Submarine and Anti-Ship warfare, and also Air-Defense.

This was at the height of the Cold War with Russia, and the US Navy (USN) felt that these ships needed these capabilities for them to better protect against sea-borne attacks on US soil. The Mellon was the first ship to get the FRAM upgrade, and ended up with the following capabilities and equipment:[1]
– Air Defense: Air Search Radar, Close In Weapons System (CIWS)
– Anti-Ship Capability: Surface Search and Navigation Radar, 25mm and 76mm Autocannons, 8 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs)
– Anti-Submarine Warfare: Hull-mounted Sonar, 6 Torpedo Tubes

But after the Cold War ended up in the 1990s, the threat of attack on the US subsided, and the USN decided to cut back on cost. One of the casualties was the FRAM upgrade for these Hamilton ships, which was scaled back a lot, deleting all upgrades related to Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and missile capability. The Mellon ended up as the only ship to be fitted with the original FULL FRAM upgrade, and served as as a proof of the MAXIMUM or optimal capability these Hamilton ships could be upgraded to. All ASW equipment and weapons and missiles were eventually removed also from the USCGC Mellon.

As can be seen from above, the Mellon would’ve been a formidable missile-armed Frigate for any navy even today. Since the PN is pressing for these Hamiltons to serve as Frigates, then it should serve as their guide on what combination of type and weight of what equipment and weapons can be used on these ships. Note also that the addition of all these equipment and weapons did NOT take away any of the Hamilton’s 45-day endurance or 26,000 km range, indicating they can take the additional weight without sacrificing any of its capabilities.

‘Missile-based CIWS’
About the only thing I would change is the type of Close In Weapons System (CIWS) to use. All Hamiltons were equipped with Phalanx CIWS, which is a GUN-BASED CIWS. Gun-based CIWS are best used as SECONDARY Air Defense, or as a last line of defense. “Secondary” because it means the ships will have a PRIMARY Air Defense System somewhere, whether they carry it onboard themselves, or they work with some other ships which will provide these for them in a fleet.

As Primary Air Defense, these Gun-based CIWS are not very satisfactory because of their low range, only up to 2-3 kilometers at most. They also can engage only 1 missile at a time, making them very vulnerable against multiple missile attacks. Our PhN ships will have to carry their primary Air Defense systems on their own since we only have very few of these advanced ships, hence they should at the very least be armed with MISSILE-BASED CIWS instead of just Gun-based CIWS for primary Air Defense.

Missile-based CIWS like the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) are superior because they have thrice the range (9km) compared to gun-based CIWS like the Phalanx, and can engage multiple targets, improving the survivability of these ships against missile attacks.[2]

A Mk 49 launcher for the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM). Photo courtesy of yedark thru Flickr.
A Mk 49 launcher for the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM). Photo courtesy of yedark thru Flickr.

‘ASW Helicopter and Firm PN Upgrade’
To improve the Hamilton’s ASW capability, an ASW Helicopter equipped with Dipping Sonar and maybe 1-2 Light Torpedoes should be acquired. ASW should also be a priority for these ships as China does have over three dozen Submarines in active service that it can bring to bear against the Philippines if necessary.[3] The PN did acquire Agusta-Westland AW109 Helicopters recently, but these does NOT have any ASW capability.[4]

About the only confirmed upgrade on the PN Hamiltons to date are the acquisition of Mk38 Mod2 M242 25mm Bushmaster Autocannons.[5] These autocannons are designed for use against small, fast, and highly maneuverable ships, like the suicide craft that damaged the USS Cole. Their stabilised mount and computer fire control system enables them to be highly accurate, and their electro-optical system enables them to be used at night and/or any type of weather.

A Mk38 Mod 2 Machine Gun System (MGS) in action. Photo courtesy of the Official US Navy Imagery account on Flickr.
A Mk38 Mod 2 Machine Gun System (MGS) in action. Photo courtesy of the Official US Navy Imagery account on Flickr.

‘Equipment and Weapons’
According to available (and verifiable) references, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz and BRP Gregorio Del Pilar came with the following equipment:[6][7]
– Sperry Mk92 Mod1 Fire Control System (with its own Target Illumination Radar)
– Raytheon Furuno AN/SPS-73 Surface Search and Navigation Radar
– Loral Hycor Mk36 Super Rapid Blooming Offboard Chaff (SRBOC) decoy launchers
– Mk75 Oto Melara 76mm Autocannon

The following equipment were also reportedly removed from both ship by the USN for use with their other ships:
– Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS)
– AN/SPS-40 Air Search Radar
– Mk38 Mod1 M242 25mm Chain Guns

So in order to upgrade the PN Hamiltons to USCGC Mellon standards, the following items will have to be installed:
* Air Defense:
– Air Search Radar
– Missile-based CIWS

* Anti-Ship Capability:
– 8 Medium to long range AShMs

* Anti-Submarine Warfare:
– Hull-mounted and Towed Sonar
– 6 Torpedo or Rocket-Assisted Torpedo Tubes
– 1 ASW Helicopter

‘Parting Shot’
The BRP Ramon Alcaraz and BRP Gregorio Del Pilar upgraded to USCGC Mellon Standards with Missile-based CIWS and ASW Helicopters will be something to be truly proud of as these ships will then be able to truly match any Chinese Frigate out there on a head to head match. The Department of National Defense (DND) should find budget to make this happen in the next couple of years in order to truly optimize these 2 new flagships of the PhN.

SOURCES:

^[1] WHEC-715 Hamilton class, http://www.harpoondatabases.com/encyclopedia/Entry1502.aspx

^[2] Close-in weapon system, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close-in_weapon_system

^[3] People’s Liberation Army Navy Submarine Force, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People%27s_Liberation_Army_Navy_Submarine_Force

^[4] Navy acquiring 3 new helicopters, http://ph.news.yahoo.com/navy-acquiring-3-helicopters-164326734.html

^[5] US awards $1.8-M contract for arms of PHL’s second cutter, http://businessmirror.com.ph/index.php/en/news/nation/1217-us-awards-1-8-m-contract-for-arms-of-phl-s-second-cutter

^[6] BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRP_Gregorio_del_Pilar_%28PF-15%29

^[7] BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF-16), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRP_Ramon_Alcaraz_%28PF-16%29

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Revision History:
* August 2, 2013: Originally posted
* January 24, 2014: Updated format to the latest standard.

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19 thoughts on “Upgrading the Philippine Navy’s Hamilton Ships”

  1. Upgrade the ex-Hamiltons with Barak VLS, Phalanx CIWS and quad Harpoon missiles I say to given the Navy a bit of bite. It will also need a modern search radar, which I think something like the EL/M-2238 STAR radar would be great. All up, I think another US $50 – $80 mil is needed per ship for the weapons and sensor fitout to give it a decent chance to perform the role as a light frigate.

    1. The Barak 1 and 8 are good, although I am not sure if there is enough space on the Del Pilars for a VLS. As for the Phalanx, I would prefer a Missile-based CIWS than a Gun-based CIWS.

  2. Even if we upgrade these 2 ships to the best system out there, they will not stand a chance against the Chinese Fleet…..realistically just saying. But Good Job for our Navy for starting to acquire modern warships, it’s long been overdue. I hope submarines are also in the pipeline….Go Navy!!!

    1. China does have a lot more ships than us, but we need to start from somewhere, and these ships are a very good start. As for the submarines, after upgrading the Del Pilar-class ships and getting these 2 brand new Frigates, maybe its time for the Philippines to start getting submarines. We should get 1 first, and gain experience for a couple of years, and then get at least another one. From there we can build a larger fleet that will provide us with a minimum deterrence against China …

    1. RAM is good, though it should be put at the front of the ship for tactical purposes. As for the VLS behind the gun, the VLS requires a lot of deck penetration, something that may not be possible on that part of the Hamilton. Hence, the safer bet would be externally mounted missile cannisters …

  3. I am surprised that the professional naval officers of the PN did not express a desire to arm the BRP Ramon Alcaraz and the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar. A weakly armed warship is just a target for another navy or air force to sink. The example of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898 and the the British Royal Navy off Malaya in 1940 are good examples. There must be a desire and commitment to prevail and win at sea in order for the PN to be taken seriously.

    1. In due time these ships will be upgraded. What is important in the interim is that we have a presence in the disputed area. As soon as budget is obtained they should prioritize its offensive armaments first by purchasing & installing the Mk-141 Harpoon missile launcher and secondly and in the interim if budget does not allow minimum defensive armaments like; BORA – Naval Pedestal Mounted Stinger System or the Aselsan stabilized Stinger platform. Until such time we could install full-fledged SeaRam system or similar.

  4. Delisting the ships from U.S. inventory and selling them to other nations did not instantly transform these ships from all-purpose cutters into main line warships. It is simply not that kind of boat.

    There’s even a more fundamental reason for limiting armament. From serving on two of these Hamilton-class cutters I can inform that there’s not much room on these boats to mount weaponry.

    And while IMO these ships have another 30 years life in them, I have to think by now the hull, decks, and superstructure are suffering metal fatigue. I don’t know that these ships can physically support mounting of anything except the lightest of weaponry.

    The reality is that in today’s times there are not going to be naval battles like we saw in WWII. As configured in Vietnam these cutters capably performed a number of functions that are no different than what these now-Philippine cutters should be configured to do today.

    In Vietnam the Hamilton-class cutters:

    Patrolled waters to detect and destroy gun running boats and ships.

    Inspected boats and ships, looking for arms.

    Conducted humanitarian missions (medical care for Vietnamese villagers).

    Ferried special forces to and from missions.

    Performed search and rescue missions.

    Provided naval gunfire support to land-based assaults.

    Supplied other ships and boats with provisions and ammunition.

    Note: Both ships on which I served had advanced anti-submarine warfare capability (including sub hunting electronics, three torpedo tubes on the port and starboard side, and the most advanced torpedoes of the time).

    As you can see, most of these tasks don’t require the latest, most powerful armament. (The surface gun can be swapped out at any time, and the desired gun quickly installed.)

    Note: When I served the cutter had a WWII era 5″ main gun. While it was great for gunfire support missions (meaning we are shooting targets on land), when we were in a battle to sink a 180′ moving gun running ship (a four hour battle), the 5″ gun and its targeting electronics were akin to fighting with swords.

    Obviously, if that battle was fought today anti-ship missiles would decide the outcome. (Remember the Falkland Islands war, where everyone saw the efficacy of the French Exocet missile.)

    IMO, any modern-day weapons configuration for these cutters requires installation of missiles, both defensive and offensive. But the problem, as I expressed above, is space limitations. These cutters are 378′ in length. The flight deck takes up a lot of space, the fantail space is limited, and there’s limited room “up front.” Torpedo tubes and deck guns use up available port and starboard sides.

    I guess missiles can be crammed here and there, but launch platforms would require careful planning, including structural tests to see if the area can handle the weapon of choice.

    P.s. Mounting missiles does not a missile frigate this make. Keep these configured as general, all-purpose ships, and go shopping for some actual missile frigates. 🙂

    1. I took the liberty of omitting some redundant parts of this post mentioned in your previous post, I hope you don’t mind.

      Our Navy have expressed plans to upgrade these Hamilton ships with Anti-Ship Missiles perhaps as early as this year (http://www.janes.com/article/31679/philippines-plans-further-upgrades-to-ex-us-coast-guard-cutters), hence your statement that these ships has suffered structural fatigue enough so they won’t likely be able to handle the extra weight of new weapons is very interesting, and a bit disappointing if true.

      As for space, they were able to do it with the USCGC Mellon, hence perhaps they can follow that example. Our Navy is also now in the final stages of bidding for 2 brand new, missile-armed Frigates, but these Hamilton ships could be a valuable force multiplier since we don’t really have a lot of large missile armed ships. Personally I was hoping that these ships would work alongside those 2 new Frigates as our main naval combatants.

  5. how about arming the del pilar (hamilton) and a. recarte (peacock) with norway’s naval strike missile (NSM) anti-ship (sea skimming) cruise missile which has a range of 184km plus. weight is only 410 kg. and length of 3.95m. it is also capable to be launched with land based vehicles

    1. For ships as large as the Del Pilar-class ships, I think the largest AShMs would better, like Harpoons or the RBS-15 Mk3. The Recarte-class ships with their top-heavy issues, I think the smaller and lighter but still very powerful Penguin-missiles would be best.

  6. Think VOLCANO ammo for the 76mm guns. The cannons could fire 50 km. More bang for the buck espicially for the Jacinto class ships. Why buy expensive Griffin missiles with a puny 8 km. range.

    1. Its the VULCANO rounds that Oto Melara developed. Yes, it could be a good option for the PhN’s ships. Those rounds won’t come cheap, though. The STRALES CIWS is also a good option for the 76 mm gun armed ships of the PhN …

  7. My take on this:

    8 Harpoon missiles behing the 76mm gun

    RIM-116 RAM on top of the hangar

    Phalanx CIWS in original fantail position

    Torpedoes

    New Air Searc Radar and Sonar

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