Officially this is my first blog under the Administration of the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and guess what? It talks about the Philippine Navy’s (PN) Frigate Acquisition Program on the brink of being either approved … or cancelled outright. First, an update on the whole Frigate program so far.
‘Frigate Program Progress’
The Indian company Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) Ltd was found to be the lowest bidder in the PN’s Frigate program, submitting a bid of P 15.047 Billion (USD 326 million), or P 953 million (USD 20.7 million) lower than the P16 billion (USD 347 million) budget for the project. The next lowest bidder was Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) who submitted a bid worth P15.744 billion (USD 341 million), higher by P 697 million (USD 15.1 million) than that of GRSE. Two other bidders, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) Co. Ltd and Navantia SA submitted bids but failed to meet some documentary requirements.
But GRSE was eventually disqualified during the Post Qualification (PQ) inspections after they were found to be deficient in the Net Financial Contracting Capacity (NFCC) requirement which is a financial indicator of a contractor’s ability to fulfil a contract. The PN subsequently conducted another PQ inspections with the next lowest bidder, HHI, in South Korea and found them to be “very favorable” in terms of meeting the program’s requirements.
After that the official updates stopped, but “unofficial” updates says that the PN is just waiting to award the contract to HHI. GRSE reportedly wants to protest their disqualification, but they have not done so yet, and they have reportedly been advised to file a formal protest. The latest reports though are that the entire Frigate program is now under heavy review by the new Administration on whether to continue it or not.
I did see some warning signs for the program, particularly on the issue of the salary increase for the Soldiers and Police Personnel that President Rodrigo Duterte had promised during his campaign for the Presidency. Last month, his own Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno flat out stated that the increase will likely occur only after five years, simply because there was no money for it. However, around a week later, contrary to what Diokno said, Duterte goes out and says that the salary increase will take effect starting this year.
That immediately was a Red Flag for me because despite what some of his fanatical followers might believe, Duterte does NOT have the power to produce money out of thin air. So the question there would be, “where will he get the money from?” Well, one of way to do that would be to REALIGN the funds for projects that has already been approved, but has not been executed yet, EXACTLY just like the funds for the Frigates.
The budget for the Frigates is already there, it is already approved, but no contract has been given out yet, hence it can be more easily re-aligned. And that is a LOT of money, over P 18 Billion worth of funds, thus making it a very large and tempting target. Now, I am not saying that the Frigate funds will be diverted for the salaries of the Soldiers and Police Personnel, but that certainly is one possibility, and the whole episode does illustrate how VULNERABLE the Frigate program is as of now.
‘ISO and HADR Capabilities’
Duterte himself has said upon assuming the Presidency that he wants the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to prioritize Internal Security Operations (ISO) first, hence it might be a good idea to highlight the Frigates’ capabilities in that area, and perhaps also in the area of Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations as well.
Now, in terms of performing ISO/HADR missions, first these Frigates can in theory carry a maximum of two Helicopters, one in its enclosed hangar and another on it is Landing Pad. Those helicopters can conduct a number of ISO/HADR missions such as:
* Reconnaissance/Surveillance – The helicopters can reach an area quickly and provide information from a bird’s eye view using its Electro-Optical (EO) or Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) systems whether it is Day or Night;
* Troop Transport – Ground Troops can be transported to and from shore quickly for various missions as needed;
* Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) – Passengers can be transported to and from shore quickly as needed for Medical Emergencies;
* Close Air Support (CAS) – The Helicopters are armed with Rocket and Machinegun Pods (RMP) that can attack enemy forces as needed.
In terms of transporting Troops or MEDEVACs, the two AW109 Helicopters can carry a total of at least twelve (six for each AW109) at a time. They also have two Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) which can be used to transport an additional twenty Passengers or Troops (ten per RHIB) at a time if necessary, complementing the Helicopters. Its 76 mm Oto Melara Super Rapid cannon can also be used for Artillery Support in Coastal areas if needed, with its Helicopters acting as Forward Observers.
‘Communications Hub’ 
Another thing these Frigates have are their extensive Communications Equipment, which would make them an excellent COMMUNICATIONS HUB for ISO and HADR operations. In terms of Transceivers or Radios, for example, they have one High Frequency (HF) Transceiver for both general VOICE and DATA communications that are ENCRYPTED and thus very SECURE;
They also have one Very High Frequency (VHF) / Frequency Modulation (FM) Marine Band Transceiver for communicating with Civilian Vessels; One VHF / Amplitude Modulation (AM) Air Band Transceiver for communicating with Aircraft; And two VHF/FM Low Band Radios for communicating with Troops on the ground.
And they have additional radio communication systems for general communications to cover additional frequencies, like two Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Transceivers and one VHF/UHF Multiband Transceiver. In terms of Satellite Communications, they have both Voice and Data Satellite Communications equipment with high speed data capability with a minimum of 1 Mbps upload and 2 Mbps download ratings.
All these communications equipment will allow these Frigates to communicate by radio with anybody or anything in any area, whether they are Ships, Aircraft or people, and whether they are Civilian or Military. This will allow the Frigates to relay any information to anywhere where it is needed, allowing for faster possible response times.
The Frigates are equipped with advanced Three-Dimensional (3D) Radars that can detect and track both Air and Surface (Sea) targets. A “3D” Radar is simply a radar that can provide the three most important information needed about a target to intercept it effectively: Its Distance (from the Radar); Its Altitude (or height from Sea Level); and its Bearing (or direction of the target). The Frigates’ 3D Radars can track Air targets as far as 185 km away and can track a maximum of 750 targets at the same time.
As of now absolutely NO other PN ship has this equipment or capability, not the Del-Pilar, Jacinto, Tarlac, etc. classes, only the new Frigates will have this capability, and they are very useful during Disaster scenarios wherein ground-based Radars on airports are unavailable due to one reason or the other. Electrical power for the radars might be out, or the radars themselves might be damaged.
With no Radar monitoring and coordinating air traffic, then aircraft performing HADR operations carrying various cargoes like Medicines, Rescue Personnel, Food, etc. will have to rely on their internal navigational equipment to monitor other aircraft in the vicinity and prevent collisions.
This situation becomes more critical at night when the pilots are deprived of their sense of sight and thus it becomes even less safer for them, so either they continue to operate at night with the increased risks, or just outright stop making night operations altogether. In such scenarios, the Frigates can arrive quickly into an area and establish Air Traffic Monitoring and Control using its own Radar and Tracking System, thus making the airspace much safer.
A safer airspace in theory means more flights can be made, and they can be done both day and night, maximizing the time for air operations. And it also means that other aircraft can participate in the HADR operations, whether they are from other governments, from the Private sector or Non-Governmental organizations, and not just our own military aircraft.
Another asset that these Frigates have are their Electronic Support Measures (ESM) capability which means the ability to detect, intercept, identify, locate, record, and/or analyze sources of radiated electromagnetic energy (such as radar or radio waves) for the purposes of immediate threat recognition. One aspect of this that has direct application to ISO/HADR missions is its capability to locate the sources of Radio Frequencies (RF).
So the Frigates are able to get the approximate Global Positioning System (GPS) locations of the radios just by analyzing their signals alone, no need for the sources to state their locations. Whether it’s Ships or people with Radios that are in distress, or enemy forces conducting operations around the coastline, then the Frigates can either dispatch assets like its helicopters to investigate, or relay that information to where it is needed so Rescue or Security operations can take place.
This last item is close to the heart of the new President as it involves the issue of drags … er, I mean, “drugs” (cough, cough). According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), aside from Airports and Ports, another way or perhaps maybe even the MAIN way for drugs to be smuggled into the country is simply by dropping them off on our Coastlines. And we do have a very large coastline which is very hard to patrol, at over 36,000 km it is ranked FIFTH in the entire world.
The smugglers are probably using ships, and the Frigates with their advanced sensors will be able to detect them at an unprecedented scale as far as our Navy is concerned. If the ships of these Smugglers are using their radios or navigational radars, then the Frigates will likely be able to detect and locate them using ESM equipment. And even if the Smugglers choose not to use their radios or radars, the Frigates’ still have their own radars and Infra-Red (IR) sensors to find them also.
Note that the AW159 Wildcat helicopters that will be assigned to these Frigates have very similar set of sensors also, and with their “bird’s eye view”, they help extend the ship’s detection capabilities. That’s one of the main reasons they were designed for anyway, to find other ships (or submarines).
The PNP does not mention aircraft as a means for smuggling into our country, but that is still a possibility. Fixed radar installations can be mapped and their ranges estimated, and if there are any gaps in the radar coverage then routes thru them could be plotted. The Air Force is still working on acquiring radars to close those gaps, and none of our current Navy ships have the ability to detect aircraft at medium or long ranges, hence smugglers might indeed be using aircraft, it’s just that we don’t have the capability to know about them yet.
I have discussed the Frigates’ extensive radar capabilities in a previous section above, and since the Frigates can move from one place to the other, then aircraft will have a much harder time evading their radar coverage.
Right now the smugglers are probably only using ships, but there is a possibility that if their ships are caught with any regularity, they might resort to using the more sophisticated and harder to detect Semi-Submersibles (those that travel just below the surface of the water) or Submersibles (those that travel up to 30 m below the water) like they have done so in other countries. In that regard, again the new Frigates will have the capability to detect and track the sound signatures of those Submersibles under the water with their Sonar equipment.
Aside from their primary mission of dealing with external threats, these Frigates can also be very effective for ISO and HADR operations. They have Helicopters and RHIBs that can conduct a wide variety of missions. The Frigates may not be able to carry as much in terms of cargo as, say, the Tarlac class Landing Platform Docks (LPDs), but they can still carry a good deal of cargo if needed.
Their extensive Communications system allows them to communicate with anything or anybody in an area and relay information to where it is needed, making them excellent Communications Hubs for ISO/HADR operations. Their 3D Radars will be able to quickly establish monitoring and coordination of the airspace around Disaster areas, making safer, faster and more air operations possible whether it is day or night.
Their radio locating capability will be useful in Rescue or Security operations, and their advanced sensor capability will be able to detect aircraft, other ships, or even submersibles that smugglers are/or may be using to bring drugs into the country.
I am hoping that despite this new Administration’s switch in priorities from external defense to internal operations, it will still continue the long delayed Frigate program of our Navy. It is high time that we finally have this kind of a ship in our inventory, all the major countries in Asia have them except us. Here’s hoping for a positive outcome …
^ Indian firm offers lowest bid for P16-B Navy frigates project,
^ Philippines disqualifies Garden Reach from light frigate programme,
^ Post-qualification inspections conducted on S. Korean proponent of PHL frigate project,
^ DBM: Pay hike for cops may take more than 5 years,
^ Duterte: Pay hike among police, military will take effect this year,
^ Duterte’s AFP chief says modernization to focus on internal security needs,
^ Revised Philipine Navy Frigate Acquisition Project Specifications (February 2016),
^ Drug war puts 1,066-km coastline in focus,
^ Countries With The Most Coastline,