Last week, a Philippine Navy (PN) official provided an update of where the Southeast Asia nation is with respect to its anti-submarine warfare helicopters. The update was notable within the context of the major boost it would constitute for Manila’s capabilities as well as within the context of a broader ongoing defense modernization effort.
As I have noted previously in these pages, the Philippines, which remains one of the region’s weakest militaries, has been on an ongoing effort to boost its defense capabilities over the past few years. That effort continues to be pursued under President Rodrigo Duterte, albeit with a mix of continuity and change and amid a range of trends and developments (See: “The Future of Philippine Military Modernization Under Duterte: What’s on the Second Horizon?”).
One of the deals in this respect occurred back in 2016, when the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) awarded Leonardo a 5.4 billion pesos ($101 million) contract for the two aircraft under the country’s Anti-Submarine Helicopter Acquisition Project. At the time, that was a headline-grabbing development as the Philippines had lacked an airborne anti-submarine warfare capability.
Yet as we head into 2019, the actual delivery of the helicopters has still yet to occur. Philippine defense officials had initially said that the PN would likely receive two Leonardo AW159 Lynx Wildcat naval helicopters with anti-submarine warfare capabilities in March 2019, and that they would be part of an effort to reinforce the defense of Philippine vessels including additional frigates coming in from South Korea.
In the past few months, there have been some additional specifics disclosed about the status of the delivery of the helicopters. Most recently, on November 6, the Philippine defense department had officially said that flight trials had begun, and that following the completion of that step, there would be an official handover to the Philippines.
Last week, the anti-submarine helicopters was in the headlines again. Asked about the status of the capability by the Philippine News Agency, Navy spokesperson Jonathan Zata said that manufacturing trials are still being done as of this time, and that the first anti-submarine helicopter was expected to be delivered within the first quarter of 2019.
Zata’s comment reinforced the reality that Manila will only have one of these anti-submarine helicopters arriving by the earlier timeline advanced by Philippine officials, instead of two of them arriving by that time as had been anticipated earlier (the two new South Korean frigates are expected in 2020 and 2021 as of now).
Zata also reiterated the significance of the anti-submarine helicopters that the Philippines would acquire, calling it a “tremendous leap” for the Navy as it would finally have a capability to engage sub-surface threats including submarines and underwater vehicles. The anti-submarine helicopters are expected to be equipped with equipment including torpedoes, sensors, and other weapons systems, and Zata said they would be temporarily housed or be part of the Navy’s air wing detachment and housed in frigates.
Zata unsurprisingly refused to provide additional specifics, including whether the helicopters would be used in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, over the course of the next few months, developments on this front will continue to be interesting to watch given its significance for Philippine defense needs.