‘A Second Pohang?’
The Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said recently that the Pohang-class Corvette that will be donated to the Philippines by South Korea will arrive in October, 2014.1 While reading around about the Incheon-class Frigate, I noticed that a new such Frigate, the Gyeonggi will also be commissioned on the same month.2 Putting two and two together, it looks like the South Korean Navy (SKN) in this case will be making a straight swap, retiring a Pohang and commissioning in a new Incheon vessel at just about the same time.
The more interesting prospect though is the fact that the SKN also intends to commission another Incheon-class vessel, the Jeonbuk,2 by December 2014. The big question is, will the SKN also retire another Pohang? No news yet from South Korea on this, but if so, what will happen to this ship? And more importantly, will the Philippines have a good chance of getting this vessel also? Right now we can only speculate, and time will tell if another Pohang will really be retired, and as to what its possible fate will be.
‘Pohangs and Ulsans to be Retired’
The commissioning of the Gyeonggi could signal an even bigger opportunity for the Philippines as there will be a windfall of South Korean warships in the next couple of years when the SKN retires more old ships and replaces them with new ones. Originally there were a total of 24 Pohang-class ships, but out of that number only around 20 remain in active service. The first Pohang-class ship, ROKS Pohang (PCC-756) was retired and turned into a museum; A second Pohang-class ship, ROKS Gunsan (PCC-757) was supposed to have been retired in 2011, although no available confirmation about this yet; Another Pohang-class ship, ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772) was sunk by a North Korean Midget Submarine;3 And a currently unnamed Pohang will be retired in October and donated to us.
Aside from the 1,200 ton Pohang-class ships, the SKN also intends to replace the Ulsan-class Frigates with the Incheon-class ships. The Ulsans are bigger, around twice the size of the Pohangs at 2,350 tons, and more capable with better and more weapons, better and more sensors, and better performance. There are around nine ships of this class currently in active service with the SKN,4 so together with the Pohangs that makes a total of 29 ships that the SKN will be retiring by 2020 and replacing with around 15 Incheon-class ships. To make up for the numerical shortfall, the new Gumdoksuri-class Patrol Vessel will also be taking up some of the operations done by the Pohang-class vessels.5
South Korea builds its ships in batches, they build them, test them operationally and then make corrections if necessary based on manufacturing and operational experience, and also add improvements if so desired, and then build the next batch of ships. This means the retirement of the Pohangs and Ulsans will also be done in batches.
‘Haksaengs and Chamsuris’
The last time South Korea retired some of its boats, the Philippines was able to get a lot of them. In the mid-1990s, when the SKN retired their Haksaeng-class Patrol Boats and started retiring their Chamsuri-class Patrol Boats, the Philippines got around a dozen Haksaengs (renamed to the Conrado Yap-class) and eight Chamsuris (renamed to the Tomas Batillo-class). The boats were either donated or sold at a token price partly in recognition of Fidel V. Ramos’ presidency then who fought in the Korean War and was actually highly decorated in that war, at one time assaulting and wiping out a Chinese position.6
The 65 ton Haksaengs were not well-maintained, though, as only three out of twelve reportedly remain in active service.7 Maybe it’s because the Philippine Navy (PN) prefers to prioritize the maintenance and operation of the newer Andrada-class of ships which is about the same size at around 56 tons. However, six out of the eight bigger 170 ton Chamsuris are still in service and has been very active in the Navy’s Counter-Insurgency and Humanitarian and Disaster Response (HADR) operations.8
Of course the Pohangs and Ulsans are much bigger, more capable and more expensive than the Haksaengs and Chamsuris, so I am not sure if we will get the same generous terms we got for the smaller boats before. Some might be given away to us, but I think if we want more we will need to buy them. The estimated selling value of the Pohang ships are around USD 30 million each based on the sale that did not push thru to the African country of Equatorial Guinea a couple of years ago,9 while the bigger Ulsans will probably be 2-3 times more expensive, around USD 60-90 million.
At that price, if these ships comes with all of their weapons and electronic equipment intact plus if all of its critical systems will be refurbished, they will actually be quite cheap if we compare them to the prevailing prices of brand-new ships of equal size, weapons, electronic equipment and capability, hence they would be very good deals for us. I would like to think that the Philippines does have a unique bond with South Korea not found with many countries in that we did fight side-by-side with them before, hence there is probably a better opportunity for us to be able to acquire war material from them which we severely need right now.
‘No Helicopter or RHIB Support’
The only sort of issue I see with both the Ulsan and Pohang is that they don’t have provisions for rotary-winged aircraft (i.e., Helicopters) and Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB). Almost all new design for Corvette-sized and up ships now carry at least one helicopter, and this is because helicopters are very useful. They extend the sensor and weapons range of a ship for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW), and they can even help defend ships against missiles by acting as decoys.
On the other hand, RHIBs are very useful as they allow personnel and cargo to be sent to and from the ship right up to the beach without the need for a deep port for the ship to dock on to. Almost all of the major Navy vessels have RHIB support, I think the Navy found them to be very useful in reaching many of the undeveloped areas around the archipelago.
The Pohangs and Ulsans could be modified to have one or both of these features, but it will likely mean that some of the weapons will have to be removed, and I am not so sure if that is a very good idea. Of course, it is up to the Navy to decide if they see this as a worthy tradeoff or not.
I think what the DND and Navy should be doing as early as now is to start planning the re-aligning of our budget for defense so we can get as many of these Pohangs and Ulsans as we possibly can. There is also the issue of manpower and training, that will also have be planned well if we are to be able to man and maintain these more sophisticated ships well.
We have to remember that opportunities like this don’t come often, based on the fact that the Pohangs and Ulsans were built in the mid-1980s means that the SKN is projecting a 30-year lifespan for their ships, hence an opportunity like this will not happen again until around 2050 when the SKN retires their Incheon-class ships.
But the big problem is the uncertainty being brought about by the coming 2016 Presidential elections, we don’t exactly know what kind of a Presidency we will be getting, whether it will be a generally good one like PNoy, or if we will end up with The Dark Lord, Jejomar Binay. If Binay is elected, we might not be able to get the full advantage of this unique opportunity of the windfall of warships from South Korea.
Around the same time frame South Korea will also be retiring more military equipment such as fighter aircraft like the KF-16, but I feel that it would be better if we get ships and ground vehicles instead as aircraft have higher and more difficult standards in terms of refurbishing and maintenance. Aside from the Pohangs and Ulsans, more Chamsuri-class boats will also be retired by 2020, and since the ones we got before have proven to be very useful to the Navy so far, we may want to get more of these ships also. I hope though that the Navy will maintain most of the Chamsuri’s armaments and systems this time around as opposed to downgrading them like they did with the earlier Batillo-class of ships.
PH set to receive warship from S. Korea,
Hyundai Heavy Industries launched the 3rd Incheon class frigate ROKS Jeonbuk,
(https://web.archive.org/web/20140612185331/http://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/news/defence-news/year-2013-news/november-2013-navy-naval-forces-maritime-industry-technology-security-global-news/1355–hyundai-heavy-industries-launched-the-third-incheon-class-frigate-roks-jeonbuk.html) ↩ ↩
Gumdoksuri-class patrol vessel,
FVR recalls Korean War exploits during the assault of Eerie Hill,
Conrado Yap-class patrol craft,
Tomas Batillo-class patrol craft,
Equatorial Guinea seeks South Korean corvettes: report,