Fair winds: Navy's new warship arrives
MANILA, Philippines — The gentle waves of Casiguran, Aurora welcomed the country's latest warship BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PF16) 2 am on Friday, August 2, a refurbished hand-me-down vessel from the US.
The newest pride of the Philippine Navy that took decades to acquire arrives at a time when Manila is caught in a row with China over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
"It seems that nature is one with the country in welcoming us in our arrival — even with a developing Low Pressure Area that appears to be following us on our track, we are smoothly sailing with fair winds, clear skies, and following seas," reads the blog created to document the journey of Alcaraz.
President Benigno Aquino III will lead the official welcome ceremony on Monday in Subic, Zambales, a province near the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The defense department plans to move the navy camp to the former US military base “for the protection of the West Philippine Sea.”
Smaller ceremonies were also held at various stops of Alcaraz in San Diego, Hawaii, and Guam in the US, and in Aurora Friday morning.
Navy spokesperson Lt Cmdr Gregory Fabic said the morale of the navy personnel is "very high." It's the second Hamilton class cutter that the Philippines has acquired from the US Coast Guard — after BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PF16) — through the US Excess Defense Articles program.
The government spent P450 million and P600 million to refurbish Del Pilar and Alcaraz, which are both about 40 years old. The funds were sourced from the Malampaya gas project off Palawan.
Alcaraz and Del Pilar, the country's biggest warships, are capable of conducting patrols for long periods of time and can withstand heavy weather and rough sea conditions. Both warships are meant to patrol and secure the country's exclusive economic zone, the West Philipine Sea, and Benham rise. They may also be deployed for disaster response operations.
More warships coming
Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario told Reuters the navy may acquire a third Hamilton class cutter following the announcement of increased military aid from the U.S., from US$30 million to $50 million. This is apart from the 2 other frigates the defense department is planning to buy under the P75-billion military upgrade that President Benigno Aquino III announced in May.
Alcaraz and Del Pilar were originally commissioned by the US Coast Guard in the late '60s. They are "new" considering that the navy flagship BRP Rajah Humabon (PF11) is a 70-year-old World War II Cannon-class destroyer escort, one of the world's oldest active warships.
Before Del Pilar, it was Humabon that was deployed for maritime security patrol.
But Humabon with its Mark22 3"/50 caliber guns as main weapon is hardly a warship now. Officially, however, Humabon is still the navy flagship, although the command is expected to eventually declare either Del Pilar or Alcaraz as its flagship.
Alcaraz even better than Del Pilar
Alcaraz is better equipped than Del Pilar. The main weapon of Alcaraz is Mark 38 Model 2 25mm "Bushmaster" auto-cannons. This is aside from the 76mm Oto Melara, the main weapon of Del Pilar.
Navy chief Vice Adm Jose Luis Alano also announced earlier that the helicopters that will support the warship will be arriving in December. The first batch of 3 Augusta 109 helicopters will be delivered and they will work in tandem with Alcaraz and BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, which have hangars to hold them.
In a time-honored tradition, Del Pilar is scheduled to welcome Alcaraz in a "meeting procedure" on Saturday, August 3, in Bolinao, Pangasinan.
"They will meet again at sea but no longer in service to Uncle Sam. They will once again sail together but for the first time without the “stars spangled banner” flying on their respective masts. Tomorrow, they will be sailing together under the Philippine Flag," the blog reads.
The event will include local fishing boats, tug boats, yachts, and the Philipine Navy's affiliated reserve units.
After Monday's ceremonies, Alcaraz will be repainted from white to the navy color gray. Alcaraz is expected to be commissioned around the second week of October.
"Right now BRP Ramon Alcaraz is still not a commissioned vessel of the Republic of the Philippines. Let's wait for her to be commissioned second week of October and she will be given missions after that," said Fabic.— Rappler.com