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The Philippines Wants Submarines For Its Navy

August 2, 2018

A South Korean diesel-electric submarine.

The Philippine Navy (PN) revealed its plans to acquire diesel-electric submarines this week, confirming unverified claims that have circulated in social media for years. The Philippine News Agency (PNA) cited a defense ministry spokesperson who explained how submarines are now part of Horizon 2, which is a broad modernization program from 2018 until 2022.

The three Horizons are a deliberate effort to strengthen the Philippines’ territorial defenses. They were launched after the Revised AFP Modernization Act was passed in 2012. Horizon 1 took place from 2013 until 2017 and Horizon 3 is from 2023 until 2028. When combined, the Horizons span a 15 year military build up.

The Department of National Defense (DND) haven’t been too generous with details other than specifying a diesel-electric submarine is their preferred asset. Since the PN are responsible for creating an undersea warfare doctrine and drawing their own requirements, the branch is spoiled with choices–and funding. President Duterte already approved $1.46 billion for the PN to cover its acquisitions until the end of his term in 2022.

If the PN starts inviting shipyards to submit bids in 2019, for example, the selection process could take an entire year (or two) and the winner has four to five years before delivering the product. This means the PN won’t have submarines until the 2020s when other Asia-Pacific states like Australia and Taiwan commission their own newest submarines. One specific supplier does have an edge over the rest of the competition though. South Korea is now the largest supplier of equipment to the Philippine military and two frigates made by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) will revive the PN’s blue water capabilities.

It isn’t far-fetched anticipating a competition between HHI and another South Korean conglomerate, Daewoo Shipbuilding (DSME), to win orders for at least three diesel-electric submarines.

But a handful of shipyards might leap at the opportunity to secure a new client in a fast growing region. Since the US doesn’t export submarines, a potential clash can erupt between European heavyweights with impeccable naval catalogs. The likeliest rivals are France’s Naval Group, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp, and Sweden’s Saab–the Nordic military-industrial firm in particular has been angling for business in Southeast Asia for a decade now.

If the PN are generous with their requirements and avoid eliminating all bids that isn’t a South Korean submarine there are another three contenders who can woo the branch. The most obvious is a Japanese shipyard since Tokyo has been persistent in trying to draw Manila away from China’s orbit for the last few years, even going so far as donating aircraft and boats. Then there’s India’s Mazagon Docks Ltd. and Russia’s Rubin Marine Engineering who both have proven hulls and decent price points to offer.

There’s still so much uncertainty when it comes to the PN’s submarine acquisition program that betting on a single diesel-electric model isn’t helpful. Given the navy’s prolonged stagnation with hand-me-down vessels and the lack of an established armaments sector, it may take at least several years–or perhaps an entire decade–until the branch is ready to deploy submarines.

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