US-PH exercise shows glaring gap between two navies

SARANGANI BAY (MindaNews/5 July) – “Iyan ang pangarap natin. Magkaroon man lang sana tayo niyan.” (That is our dream. How we wish we will own one like that.)

Spoken with a tinge of resignation, these were the wishful words uttered by Cmdr Lued Lincuna of the Philippine Navy as his patrol boat approached USS Vandegrift past noon Sunday at the mouth of Sarangani Bay, some 20 nautical miles off General Santos City.

To think that the US frigate is nowhere near the top-of-the-line warships of the US Navy, Lincuna cannot be faulted for dreaming of one day skipping that kind of floating vessel which maximum speed is a top secret.

“Over 25 nautical miles (per hour),” was all Commodore David Welch would volunteer to say. Welch is Task Group 73.1 commander of the US Navy that is participating in the ongoing 2012 CARAT exercises in General Santos City. CARAT stands for Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, an 18-year joint military exercise and training between the US and its allies in Southeast Asia.

Some US warships can cruise as fast as 50 nautical miles per hour. That is equivalent to 92.6 kilometers per hour speed overland.

USS Vandegrift is a versatile vessel capable of navigating international waters and behind hostile territories. It is armed with torpedoes and is also designed for anti-submarine warfare and can stay afloat for weeks on end without refueling. Most of all, it can eavesdrop anywhere in the world with its sophisticated listening and surveillance devices. Stationed in San Diego, California, it can be deployed anywhere in the world in a moment’s notice.

Lincuna must be drooling even more as US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Waesche is now docked side by side with USS Vandegrift at Makar Wharf in General Santos City.

USCGC Waesche, commissioned in 2006, is the flagship of the US Coast Guard and also its most modern vessel.

Members of the local press here were only allowed limited tour on USS Vandergrift (commissioned in 1984) and were not led to USCGC Waesche.

Lincuna, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class 1993, said the Philippine Navy, along with the Philippine Air Force, was once one of the best in Asia.

“The Philippine Navy had its glory days in the 1970s (before Martial Law was declared),” Lincuna said as his fast attack craft BRP Salvador Abcede made a traditional welcome pass around Vandegrift.

The Philippine Navy, however, deteriorated over the years as it lost its aura of strength – at least in this part of Asia.

It can only bark at the might of China, Japan, Korea and even neighbor Indonesia to whom it shares thousands of nautical miles of international waters.

According to the global intelligence website, “Philippine warships are armed entirely with mounted machine guns and deck guns, the largest of which is 3 inches (76mm). The Fleet lacks missile-armed ships, greatly limiting range and effectiveness against enemy warships and aircraft. Even antisubmarine weapons (ASW) like depth charges are absent on all or almost all of the Philippine warships. The Philippine Fleet also lacks its own submarines, not to mention aircraft carriers.”

Forget about those carriers. They may never come in the lifetime of the Philippine Navy.

The least it can do is acquire gunships that will enable it to patrol the country’s coastline and exclusive economic zones without fear of being bullied like what is happening in the disputed Scarborough Shoal territories.

The Philippine Navy was supposed to be the major beneficiary of the P331-billion (US$ 8 billion) 1995 15-year modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It never took off until recently when it acquired BRP Gregorio del Pilar, and before that BRP Ramon Alcaraz, under the Excess Defense Articles and the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act of the US government.

In May this year, the Philippine Navy issued its own wish list for the modernization of its fleet. It includes acquisition of 6 frigates configured for anti-air warfare, 12 corvettes designed for anti-submarine warfare, 18 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OVs), 3 submarines, 3 Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMVs), 4 Strategic Sealift Vessels (SSVs), 18 Landing Craft Utility (LCU), among others.

When asked what the Philippine Navy needs for its modernization program, US Rear Admiral Thomas Carney said it depends on what defense capabilities the AFP wants to effectively patrol and defend its long coastlines as well its defined territories.

Carney is commander of Logistics Group of the US Navy’s Western Pacific Command and head of the US contingent participating in CARAT 2012.

Right now, the biggest ship in the Philippine Navy is the refurbished BRP Gregorio del Pilar.

BRP Gregorio del Pilar was formerly USCGC Hamilton (WHEC-715), built in 1965 but decommissioned by the US Coast Guard in the same year it was transferred to the Philippine Navy.

Commodore Philip Cacayan, commander of the Philippine Navy’s Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao command, said what the Navy lacked in equipment and armaments, they make up with their resilience.

He is confident the Philippine Navy will eventually catch up with its neighbors – at least within Southeast Asia.

Right now, the tension between the Philippines and China in Scarborough Shoal are the farthest thing in the minds of both Cacayan and Lincuna. The territory is simply outside their area of jurisdiction. Even if they are stationed there, there is nothing much they can do against the only capable naval fleet in Asia in China. They cannot even afford a staredown with their Chinese counterparts – literally.

Even its adjunct forces – the Philippine Marines – the standard rifles are still the Vietnam War-era M-16.

Side by side with some 50 US Marine troops during a riverine exercise, the Philippines Marines and Philippine Coast Guards can only wish they will someday be issued the M4 version of the Armalite rifles, currently the standard issue in the US Armed Forces.

From the combat boots to caps and uniforms to the minutest of combat gear, the Filipino soldier is his US counterpart’s poor cousin.

And every time these kinds of exercise are being held, the Philippine Navy is reminded that it has a long way to go before it can call its forces a naval fleet. (Edwin Espejo / MindaNews contributor)