From Popular Mechanics (May 9): The Philippines Just Bought a Warship for $100
But what does a single Benjamin actually buy you?
The Republic of the Philippines is getting a real bargain. In this age of $1.3 billion guided missile destroyers, the island nation is "buying" a used warship from South Korea for the bargain-basement price of just $100. While that sounds like a screaming deal, exactly what is it getting for its money?
The Philippines is in the midst of a defense buildup. The island country has been locked in a political face-off with China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. With no end in sight, the concern is the political dispute will escalate to a military one, a hypothetical conflict the Philippines would be woefully unready for. The country has been fighting an insurgency against various internal groups, including the Al Qaeda-aligned Abu Sayyaf guerrilla force, funding its army at the expense.
The country has been on a low-grade shopping binge, purchasing a dozen F/A-50 fighters from South Korea and accepting donated Coast Guard cutters from the United States. Now, according to The Jakarta Post, it is about to get a Pohang-class corvette from South Korea for the fantastic sum of $100. The ship, ROK Chungju, was decommissioned from the Republic of Korea Navy in December 2016. The "purchase" is actually a transfer, and the $100 is largely symbolic.
Pohang-class corvette firing its stern mounted 76-millimeter gun during a fleet review, 2015.
The Pohang-class corvettes were some of the first large warships built by South Korean shipyards. Twenty-four corvettes were built during the mid 1980s and early 1990s between 1984 and 1993. Each weighed 1,200 tons fully loaded and had a maximum speed of 32 knots, armed with a pair of Italian-made 76-millimeter deck guns, four Harpoon anti-ship missiles, two 40-millimeter cannons, and anti-submarine torpedoes as well as depth charges. The Pohang-class ships were built mainly to patrol South Korean coastal waters and square off against North Korea's fleet of small gunboats and coastal submarines.
While the ex-Chungju is essentially free, the Philippines has also committed to paying to bring the ship back into service. One Philippine former naval officer-turned-blogger describes the necessary work as "repair, minor refurbishing works, replacement of obsolete systems required for safe use of the ship, crew billeting and training, and other expenses." That will cost an estimated 200 million Philippine pesos, or the equivalent of $4 million dollars.
The ship will also not transfer with all of its weaponry. The Harpoon missiles are not part of the sale—the missiles are still useful to South Korea and Seoul would have to get permission from the United States to sell them, a process that could take years. The ship might also lose its American-made Mk. 46 anti-submarine torpedoes.
The stern of ROKS Cheonan being lifted by crane. Visible in the lower turret is a 76-millimeter gun, in the upper turret a pair of 40-millimeter cannon, and a pair of Harpoon missile launchers.
There's also the question of what kind of condition the ship is in. In 2014 the Philippine Navy looked at another Pohang-class ship, Mokpo, and found it in "very poor condition" and not worth refurbishing. Chungju is two years younger and presumably inspectors found it in slightly better condition. Another Pohang-class corvette, ROKS Cheonan, was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in its 21st year of service. At the time of the sinking, one news report quoted the mother of a crewmember as saying her son thought the ship was in poor condition and complained about serving on it. Still, given that some of the ships in the Philippine Navy were built during World War II, even a worn-out thirty year old ship is better than a seventy year old one.
Even if the ex-Chungju is stripped of its weapons, South Korea is well positioned to re-equip it for the Philipines, at a price. Harpoon missiles can be replaced with Korean Haeseong missiles and Mk. 46 anti-submarine torpedoes can be replaced with Blue Shark torpedoes. This is not a coincidence, as South Korea is pushing to develop its own arms export industry. Think of Chungju as a free ice cream cone—it's the ice cream that's going to cost real money.
The Philippines' "new" warship will end up costing a lot more than a hundred dollar bill, but it's still likely a welcome upgrade. While it's still not on equal terms with a brand-new Type 056 corvette, the Chungju's second career will give the People's Liberation Army Navy something to think about.