Naval Warfare

Philippines receives most capable warship, minus Link 16

27th May 2020 - 00:30 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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The Philippine Navy (PN) piloted the multipurpose frigate BRP Jose Rizal (pennant number 150) into home waters and the port of Subic Bay for the first time on 23 May, a year to the day since it was launched.

For its delivery voyage that began on 18 May, the 2,600t vessel had 31 South Korean and 61 Philippine sailors aboard. It was escorted by other PN vessels and aircraft for the final part of its journey.

BRP Jose Rizal’s formal commissioning ceremony is scheduled for 19 June. The date is significant since it is the birthday of its namesake, a Filipino revolutionary hero executed by the Spanish in 1896.

Cdre Karl Decapia, the PN’s Offshore Combat Force commander, presided over Jose Rizal’s arrival. He said FF-150 signalled the realisation of a modern navy capable of imposing the navy’s territorial defence mandate. It is one of two frigates on order.

The PN noted the crew would go into a 14-day quarantine, while a final acceptance evaluation by the Technical Inspection and Acceptance Committee will commence later this week. This inspection was originally supposed to be done in South Korea, but it was changed because of COVID-19 measures.

During its sea trials earlier this year, the frigate performed an at-sea replenishment with the future HMNZS Aotearoa, a supply ship being built by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) for New Zealand.

The 107.5m-long Jose Rizal, also built in Ulsan by HHI, was originally scheduled to be delivered in September of this year as the first of two multipurpose frigates for the PN. However, its munitions and missiles will not begin arriving until next year.

One of the most contentious aspects of the frigate procurement has been its combat management system (CMS). A former PN commander plus the head of the technical team, both later fired, were pushing for the Thales TACTICOS as the CMS, but in the end Hanwha Systems’ Naval Shield Baseline II was installed.

The former was already compatible with Link 16 but the latter is not and this has had serious implications, as Link 16 compatibility is something required by the Philippines. Unfortunately, the frigate is being delivered without this data link capability and it will need to be retrofitted.

Certification of the Hanwha Naval Shield’s compatibility with Link 16 will only happen if it passes a US Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC) conformity test scheduled for 2021.

HHI originally promised the PN that compatibility would be achieved by 2019 or before the first frigate was delivered. However, the PN must now wait till next year, assuming the schedule is not delayed further.

Hanwha is relying on a third party, Ultra Electronics with its Air Defense System Integrator (ADSI), for Link 16 compatibility with Naval Shield. The ADSI is a router that permits data link integration with a CMS, and indeed its workability was demonstrated during the Philippine frigate’s sea acceptance tests in February.

Importantly, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) is upgrading its KDX-I destroyers with Naval Shield Baseline 2.3 and Link 16 compatibility using this same ADSI. However, Hanwha will not receive JITC certification from the US until testing occurs.

BRP Jose Rizal (right of picture) conducted replenishment trials off the coast of South Korea with HMNZS Aotearoa. (Credit: Royal New Zealand Navy)

With HHI unable to provide this essential certification yet, the ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) has stepped in as guarantor, writing a letter to the Philippine defence minister confirming that the ADSI is appropriately accredited for Link 16.

Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana accepted this letter of guarantee from HHI and the ROK MND. However, this still leaves the PN hanging without the full Link 16 capability it demanded in the contract.

Lorenzana set conditions, however. Final acceptance of the frigate will require a further technical inspection, and HHI shall warrant the vessel until this is achieved and certification issued.

In retrospect, the insistence of ex-navy chief Ronald Mercado on TACTICOS makes sense. It would have saved the Philippines a lot of trouble and negated the need to include the third-party integrator Ultra Electronics. Retrofitted integration of the ASDI will require further time and money, including downtime for the frigates.

However, the Philippine contract stated that HHI was free to choose its own subsystems. Perhaps in the end it comes back to deficiencies in the Philippines’ contractual oversight, and certainly the country has little experience in purchasing such complex platforms.

The two multipurpose frigates will be the first Philippine naval assets to boast Link 16. They also feature Link P, a Hanwha-made data link that allows them to communicate only with each other but not with the AW159 helicopters embarked aboard them, for instance.

Sister frigate BRP Antonio Luna (151) should be ready by March 2021. The pair was ordered for PHP15.7 billion ($337 million) on 24 October 2016.

The PN’s three Del Pilar-class frigates (ex-US Coast Guard cutters) are also expected to receive Hanwha’s Naval Shield. Until all these vessels receive Link 16, they will not be able to share data freely with US and other allied platforms.

Last November, the Philippines issued Hanwha Systems with a notice to proceed for this upgrade programme worth PHP1.3 billion. Work on all three ships is scheduled to be completed by May 2022. The scope of work includes hull-mounted sonars, the aforesaid CMS and radar electronic support measures.

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