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Operation 'Pinoy Pride' - "Storm's a-coming ..."

No-one in the Philippines eagerly anticipates typhoon-strength tropical storms. But, for the Philippine Navy, the approach of Typhoon Josie in July of 2022 did present opportunities. One opportunity was to complete the rough water segment of the Sea Acceptance Tests (SAT) for the newly re-delivered Jacinto class offshore patrol vessel. One of these 712-ton OPVs - the BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS-36) - had recently been fitted with a new aluminum superstructure cladding intended to reduce the ship's radar signature. For budgetary reasons, the 'semi-stealth' reworking of this demonstrator was far from complete. [1] However, the Philippine Navy wanted to take advantage of stormy conditions to test the seaworthiness of the revised hull and superstructure.

Austal Philippines engineers and workers had pressed hard to get the Jacinto recladding completed on time. The Philippine Navy timeline might have been slightly unrealistic but the re-delivery date had been met - in part, because the Navy was willing to forego a range equipment updates ... for now. [2] The Philippine Navy was, itself, coming under intense pressure from the Department of National Defense and even directly from the newly-appointed Secretary of National Defense, Voltaire Gazmin. [3] Outsiders - even Austal Philippines personnel - assumed that this pressure stemmed from concerns over the great age of many of the Philippine Navy's patrol craft. [4]

With all these hasty preparations, it came as a surprise for Austal employees aboard the BRP Apolinario Mabini to learn that they would be disembarking at Subic Bay. Their reclad OPV would undertake its rough water SATs with a purely military crew aboard. Austal's Marine Engineer, Francisco 'Kikô' Ramírez Jr, had already submitted the initial sea trial CAMPAR (Computer Aided Marine Performance Analysis Report) based on the ship's Cebu-to-Luzon cruise. [5] Outfitting design engineer Frank Deakin was more than happy to have a few days off - especially with 'Kikô' promising to show Austal co-workers around his hometown. Their shipboard boss, project Structural Lead Coordinator, Bruce Thwaites, was just as relieved not to be facing three days in a pitching 63-metre hull. But Thwaites was also puzzled.

The Philippine Navy had onboard access to qualified naval architects and marine engineers on loan from Austal Philippines. Why would the PN not make use of their skills during these Sea Acceptance Tests? Instead, the PN chose to send serving sailors out into rough waters to sea-test an unproven structural modification. Who made the decision to exclude skilled Austal Philippines personnel? And why wouldn't the acting captain of the BRP Apolinario Mabini listen to informed protests? It was all very puzzling.

Austal Philippines and the Development of the 'Semi-Stealth' Patrol Vessel

The 'Stealth Jacinto' concept had evolved in a roundabout way. The Australian shipbuilder Austal had been chosen to supply the Philippine Navy's next offshore patrol vessel - an 83-meter OPV with a steel hull and an aluminum superstructure. Construction would be undertaken at a new Austal Philippines yard at Subic Bay - assuming a successful joint US-Australian bid to take over the failed Subic Bay yard from the receivers of Hanjin Shipping. [6] However, this joint bid was endangered by then-President 'DiGong' Duterte's on-again/off-again support for a Subic Bay takeover by one of two Chinese firms. As an immediate back-up plan, OPV work would take place at the expanded Austal Philippines yard at Balamban on Cebu.

Funding for the six new Austal OPVs was to be provided by Canberra as a 'soft loan' - ie: part of on-going Australian government aid to the Philippines. [7] Surreally, this program was halted in September 2019 through an executive order from 'DiGong' Duterte. Under this order, the President blocked all formal dealings - including negotiating foreign loans - between the Philippines and any country which had backed a UN probe of Duterte's murderous anti-drug war. Australia had been one such nation. As a result, the Philippine Navy's rebuiding plans were in limbo. Worse, 30,000 skilled Filipino shipyard workers at Subic Bay would remain unemployed.

Former Secretary of National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, had scrambled to convince Duterte to make an exception for the crucial Austal OPV program. Eventually, Duterte deigned to lift his ban ... but the damage had been done. Canberra had been offering a 'soft loan' of 30 billion Philippine Pesos (PHP) or about AUD 800,000 for the OPV project. However, while Duterte postured over perceived foreign slights against him, Australia had been through its 'black summer' of devastating bushfires followed by on-going Covid-19 lock-downs. Was Canberra still in the mood to subsidize the 'macho madman' in Manila?

SecDef Lorenzana faced another problem. Were Canberra to resume its 'soft loan' offer, a downpayment was still required. Sources differ on whether the Philippine government would be required to produce 10% or 15% of the total cost as its downpayment on the OPV project. But that translated into an initial payment by Manila of between 3 billion PHP (AUD 80,000) and 4.5 billion PHP (about AUD 120,000). Where was that money to come from? 'DiGong' Duterte showed no interest. And SecDef Lorenzana's defence budget was already spoken for.

SecDef Lorenzana could see a crisis looming. More was a stake here than a half dozen patrol vessels. Through its Technical Skills Development Program, Austal Philippines was offering underprivileged Filipinos a chance to develop shipbuilding skills. This too was largely funded by aid money provided by Canberra. Without a skilled workforce to man the Philippines' shipyards, the Philippine Navy would forever be reliant upon other nation's cast-offs or charity. That would be a disaster, especially with China threatening to gobble up all of Manila's possessions in the West Philippine Sea. Something had to be done.

In early 2020, Lorenzana had quietly contacted the outgoing Austal CEO, David Singleton. While waiting for a final decision on the new OPV project, would Austal Philippines be willing to display its 'mixed-metal' construction techniques - and enhance the skills of newly-trained Filipino workers - by performing additional upgrade work on the Philippine Navy's existing Jacinto class patrol vessels? What Lorenzana had envisioned was the construction of a 'semi-stealthy' superstructure onto the existing hulls (which the SecDef's naval advisors assured him was technically feasible). For such a scheme to work, Austal would need to organize its own financing arrangements for this project directly from Canberra. Singleton agreed to tackle this work as a one-off demonstrator hull. If deemed successful by the Philippine Navy's Technical Inspection and Acceptance Committee (TIAC), further funding would be found to complete the superstructure conversions for all three Jacinto class hulls.

"No one ever approaches perfection except by stealth ..."

In April 2020, planning and design work had begun on Jacinto class recladding in the midst of a global pandemic. Despite difficult lock-down logistics, work progressed quickly - the superstructure and upper hull cladding being relatively simple add-ons. Beyond reducing radar and infrared signature, an objective of the recladding was eliminating the Jacinto's notoriously low freeboard (at least on the hull sides amidships). With the 'tumblehome' shape of the new cladding, this was easily accomplished. A greater challenge came with the attempt to reduce topside weight - the class had a reputation for being top-heavy (a major problem if the desired integrated mast system was to be introduced).

Superstructure weight savings would be realized mainly by the wholesale removal of any and all superfluous steel components above the waterline. Non-structural elements would then be replaced by aluminum or composite parts. Design work was split between Austal as prime contractor and a seconded team from the naval architecture firm of LOMOcean Design, based in Auckland, New Zealand. The division of labour put Austal in charge of overall structural changes - including the design and application of a new lower superstructure cladding with sufficient strength to withstand wave slamming.

In consultation, primary and secondary contractors tackled design work on the revised superstructure shaping. Austal worked on the extended hull sides - from the former side gunwales to the height of the tops of the hydraulic hoists. This area was reclad with sloped aluminum plating supported by a fretwork of welded aluminum tubing (with FRP bushings separating the light alloy fittings from original steel structures). LOMOcean was responsible for sheathing that aluminum cladding with carbon-fibre, foam-sandwich panels which - along with that new tumblehome shaping - would serve to reduce the vessel's radar cross section (RCS).

LOMOcean was fully responsible for recladding the superstructure above Austal's new aluminum plating. In those locations, composite bracings were used to attach the flat carbon-fibre, foam-sandwich panels. This approach resulted in a revised upper works. The structural weight diminished as it rose higher: Austal's carbon-fibre sheathed aluminum plates was lighter than the steel below the gunwales, and LOMOcean's composite structures above were lighter than the Austal plating below. The results were new topsides for the Jacinto class with improved shaping - for deflecting/absorbing radar and surviving heavier seas - all without any substantial increase of weight. The overall desired weight loss was not achieved, but all parties involved agreed that the resulting 'Super Jacinto' rebuild was a success.

The 'Super Jacinto' rebuild took advantage of Austal Philippines' considerable local expertise with aluminum welding and fabrication - but newly developed for the naval realm rather than for civilian ferries. LOMOcean was also able to demonstrate its abilities in applying composite materials to patrol vessels - standing the Kiwi firm in good stead for pitching its 25-metre Stealth Patrol Craft design to the Philippine Navy. And, of course, the real purpose of all this work was the reduction of the Jacinto class' radar cross section. But, although the term was widely bandied about in the media, the reclad patrol vessels were in no sense truly 'stealth' ships. [8]

The recladding served two 'semi-stealth' functions. First was as a form of visual camouflage - unless silhoutted, the simplified shape (and less variegated patterns) of the revised superstructure would make the ship more difficult to recognize. Those cleaner lines and sloped panels also helped reduce RCS. Working with an existing hull and under-superstructure meant that no true 'Special Geometry of Shapes' could be applied. However, shaping alone provided a modicum of RCS reduction which was aided by the application of radar absorbing coatings. [9] For the initial mission envisioned by DefSec Lorenzana, 'semi-stealth' should be more than good enough for the 'Super Jacinto'.

(To be Continued ...)

[1] Priority was given to making the hull and superstructure seaworthy. Stealth trials could wait, the Summer 2022 trials were focused on handling and station-keeping abilities. The Harbour Acceptance Tests (HAT) had raised no major issues. Now the more daunting Sea Acceptance Tests must be faced.

[2] These updates included a new main gun shelter (which, for reasons of cost, would be of 'faceted' type rather than 'stealthy'); an integrated main mast system; a WR Davis eductor/diffuser IRSS (infrared signature suppression) duct for the funnel; and an experimental superstructure cooling system using seawater 'wash and misting' to further reduce IR signature (by limiting solar heat gain on the exterior cladding).

[3] Former Chief of the Army, LtGen Voltaire Gazmin had been tapped as DefSec for the incoming Robredo Cabinet in early May 2022.

[4] Many of these PN patrol boats are ex-US Navy vessels dating back to WW2 - although attrition through lack of spares and cannibalization is taking its toll on this aged fleet.

[5] Marine Technician Carlito 'Neneng' Baclig had noted the heightened ERAT (Engine Room Air Temperature) but that was a simple matter of installing greater-capacity ventilators. The  'blackout test' also raised concerns when the emergency DA (diesel alternator) took almost 60 seconds to come online. Both the higher ERAT and DA lag were flagged for attention ... but these minor glitches could wait until after the rough water tests.

[6] Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction had filed for bankruptcy in early 2019. However, its key assets - shipyards in Busan and Subic Bay - were not put on the block until September 2020. The successful bid came from Austal in a financial partnership with US-based Cerberus Capital Management. However, the transition was greatly slowed by the lingering effects of the corona virus, as well as the alienating impact of Duterte's vacillating pronouncements on foreign governments and their potential aid projects.

[7] Details of this 'soft loan' were not released but, generally, such soft financing implies little or no interest and extended grace periods for failures to repay. In other words, 'soft loans' represent a foreign policy tool rather than an actual banking arrangement.

[8] In naval use, 'stealth' technology implies a reduction in all 'observables': visual, radar, infrared, and acoustic. As a maximized design, the reclad Jacinto class would, at least partially, cover the first three 'observables' but potential noise reduction was not addressed in any way.

[9] For some hatches and uppermost superstructure claddings, a different approach was taken. Here, a framework was covered with radar-absorbing composite material panels. The latter consisted of a GRP sandwich sheeting between which is layered polymer substrates filled with metallic microfibres. The resulting panels deflect or absorb the electromagnetic waves from scanning radars.

Old Wombat:
Austal? ???

There are going to be tears! :icon_sueno:


--- Quote from: Old Wombat on March 16, 2021, 09:39:03 AM ---There are going to be tears! :icon_sueno:

--- End quote ---

 ;D  Quite possibly. But I'm hoping that this story won't be heading where you think it is  ;)

I am going to have to recluse myself from this one, partially to prevent a tourettes type outburst, but also so as not in inadvertently provide too much real world information as to how totally incompetent Austal are.

Remain calm!  ;D

No need to recuse ... Austal is only a bit player in a much larger story about the near-future of the Philippines   ;)

Austal was tapped for its fictional role solely because that company is 'on the ground' in the Philippines. That gave me two genuine locations to play with as well as an actual encounter between RW personalities. (I could have just made up people and corporate entities. Maybe I should have?)

WARNING: Austal does make another, brief appearance at the beginning of Part 2. You may want to arrow down the page  :smiley:


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