Author: Shang-Su Wu, RSIS
The upcoming commission of two purpose built Jose Rizal-class frigates is unprecedented for the Philippines. Since independence, the Philippines has relied heavily on secondhand warships — mainly from the United States — to protect its large archipelagic land, waters and other maritime entitlements. But this strategy has proven flawed.
Vessels decommissioned from foreign service are technologically outdated with a limited lifespan. US Navy vessels are often not fit-for-purpose for the Philippine Navy.
The US Coast Guard’s Hamilton-class cutters were the best ships on offer to Manila in the last decade and they did beef up naval capacity. The Philippines conducted more naval operations — including joint exercises and citizen evacuations — than ever before.
But these ageing vessels are not designed to deal with modern military threats from the air, surface or underwater. With increasing strategic pressure from China in the West Philippine Sea, Philippine defence planners conducted their first procurement of two modern Jose Rizal-class frigates. The build was contracted by South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries.
Although the two frigates are inferior to China’s fleet in the region, they are tactically and strategically beneficial. Strategically, with its decades-long security dependence on the United States, the Philippines has lagged in building its own naval capacity. These frigates offer greater capabilities than the former Hamilton-class vessels and can conduct overseas exercises, such as Combined Task Force 151 deployments for countering piracy or other coalition operations.
The frigates can also participate in warfighting if needed. The self-funded naval expansion may also enhance Manila’s relationship with the United States and other states. But defence diplomacy is not limited to events led by the United States. It also includes other international occasions that benefit the Philippines’ national interest.
Tactically, two capable frigates provide operational flexibility. The Philippine Navy is currently operating without modern arms — either missiles or torpedoes — and is unable to handle any at-sea scenario higher than ramming and water cannoning. These are common tactics at the level of an exchange of fire. Beijing could therefore use an escalation or a threat of escalation to press Manila in a confrontation. With more capable vessels, the Philippines has more options than merely avoiding escalation.
Improved surveillance will provide greater situational awareness in addition to a mechanism to deter escalation. Beijing would therefore need more assets for its so-called ‘grey zone operations’. The Philippines will eventually have better submarine tracing capability, including boarded AW-159 anti-submarine helicopters. Overall, improved naval capability is another facet of upholding sovereignty across the Philippine archipelago. Further, these two frigates will generate a talent pool of officers, sailors and mechanics skilled for the use and management of modern naval technologies who will be able to accommodate a larger and more advanced naval fleet in the future.
But these two ships are still not fully capable because they are not pre-fitted with several weapon systems. This included a lack of a close-in weapon system (CIWS), a vertical launching system (VLS) and a towed array sonar system. As both CIWS and VLS are crucial for intercepting approaching anti-ship missiles, their absence leaves the air defence of the frigates to only 76mm naval guns and Mistral surface-to-air missiles. Weak air and missile defence means inferior survivability in scenarios of conventional naval warfare. The frigates may not have much capacity for escalation in a confrontation with their Chinese counterparts and thus Manila’s strategic options remain relatively narrow.
Since a towed array sonar system is important for a surface combatant to find and track submarines, the two frigates’ underwater surveillance capability is also restricted. The fully equipped Jose Rizal-class frigates could possess similar capabilities to other frigate projects in Southeast Asia, such as the Thai Bhumibol Adulyadej-class and Malaysian Maharaja Lela-class frigates. But short of those major weapon systems, the Philippine frigates fall behind the naval capabilities of regional counterparts.
Commissioning the Jose Rizal-class frigates is an important milestone for the Philippines on its journey towards self-sufficiency in maritime defence, especially after decades of dependence. But after commissioning the two frigates, there remain challenges for Manila in naval defence. The government must consider how soon to complete installation of those essential arms on the waiting list.
Defence planners must maximise the strategic value of the two frigates through appropriate deployment. Technological and operational mastery of the vessels will also be critical. These issues will pose challenges to both defence and diplomacy. A comprehensive plan for naval modernisation to expand capacity beyond the two Jose Rizal-class frigates is crucial. The ongoing project of building two more corvettes would help to realise the long-term goal of developing a modern navy. But the Philippine’s journey to meet the defence demands of its immense maritime territory will be a long one.
Shang-Su Wu is a research fellow in the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.