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Navy’s fastest ship sails to new homeport

By NEWSBREAK CONTRIBUTOR

By GEMMA NEMENZO

CALIFORNIA—“Requesting permission, sir, to carry out the mission to return to the Philippines.”

As the BRP Gregorio del Pilar leaves the US Coast Guard dock in Alameda, California, the crew unfurls a banner.

Philippine Navy Captain Alberto Cruz uttered these all-important words softly, almost privately—away from the chatter of supporters and onlookers—to the Flag Officer in Command (FOIC) of the Navy, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, at around 1530 hours on July 18 in Alameda, California.

With permission granted, Cruz then boarded the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to steer the new crown jewel of the Philippine Navy on her journey of approximately a month to her new homeport.

Earlier, the rituals of departure that naval tradition calls for whenever a ship is deployed on an important mission were conducted by the ship’s 95-person crew, leaving the crowd of about a hundred supporters tearful.

The emotion of the moment was not lost on the ex-Philippine Navy officers present (all of them alumni of the Philippine Military Academy, where Pama, Cruz and the other top officers of the BRP GdP also graduated from) as they remembered their years aboard the rickety ships of the Navy and watched with a large amount of pride this big new ship the likes of which they could only dream about when they were in active service.

It took more than an hour before the former Hamilton class cutter was actually able to leave port. A minor propeller problem had to be repaired before the U.S. Coast Guard tugboat could steer it out of the

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dock. When she finally sailed, the dwindled crowd of wellwishers cheered and waved tiny Philippine flags as the crew unfurled a hastily made banner that said, “Maraming salamat sa inyong lahat.”

Pama, recording the departure on both his cell phone and tablet computer, was visibly proud as he watched the 92 men and three women under his command sail away. Earlier, in a moment of nostalgia for his days aboard ship, he had wished that he was on board with them.

Fastest, biggest

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar is the first of three major vessels the Philippine Navy will acquire “hopefully by the end of the year,” according to Pama.

Funding for the acquisitions—part of the military modernization plans of the Aquino administration—will come from the Department of Energy’s six billion-peso allotment for oil exploration and coastal protection.

It will not be the first time this particular ship – the WHEC-715 – will dock in the Philippines.

On her initial deployment in 1969, she sailed from Panama to Subic Naval Base, where she docked for four days before proceeding to South Vietnam to carry out the mission of preventing weapons smuggling from North Vietnam at the height of the war.

After her wartime mission, the 715 was used by the US Coast Guard for anti-drug smuggling duties and rescue operations in various countries until her final decommissioning last March.

The Philippine government bought the Hamilton class cutter early this year for approximately US$13 million (Php450 million) under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

Once the largest ship of the American Coast Guard, this is the first gas-turbine jet engine-powered vessel in the Philippine Navy fleet, making it the fastest, biggest and most powerful among the service’s aging inventory.

She is described as “a high endurance cutter with close-in weapons system” and features a helicopter flight deck with a retractable hangar, with capabilities for rescue operations and maritime law enforcement.

At the helm of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar is Navy Captain Alberto Cruz, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of ’88.

Elite crew

Philippine Navy Captain Alberto Cruz, the author, and Vice Admiral Alex Pama. After this photo was snapped, Cruz turned to Pama to ask permission to sail.

An amiable, soft-spoken guy whose easy-going style belies years of experience in commanding naval ships and people, his all-important mission is to deliver this very valuable vessel across the Pacific to the Philippine waters safe and intact.

Not an easy task considering that this is the first time he and his crew will traverse this lengthy route, and the first time they will navigate this ship with her unfamiliar technology for an extended period in the open sea without the assistance and know-how of its former American crew.

To top it all, they will be arriving in the Philippines right smack into typhoon season.

But if there’s any group up to the challenge, it’s this crew of naval officers and sailors who have been handpicked by the Philippine Fleet Command (a special committee of top naval officials) based on their exemplary service and experience.

“It’s safe to say that this crew, from the Commanding Officer down to the lowest ranking enlisted man, is the ‘crème de la crème’ of the Philippine Navy,” retired Philippine Navy Captain Archie Almario says.

“You don’t send someone with a checkered service record to an international mission as important as this. This [assignment] is both a recognition of their talents and a reward for their good work.”

Cruz and the seven other naval officers and 13 enlisted men/engineers that formed the initial group that trained with the Hamilton command were assigned in various naval ships stationed in different areas of the archipelago when they got the call from their superiors last January. Report to [the

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Philippine Navy headquarters] Manila for a new assignment was the missive. There they were told of the government’s acquisition and the role they would play in the

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process.

As commanding officer, Cruz had his complete crew already chosen for him. Among the seven are the executive officer Navy Commander Reynaldo Lopez (PMA Class 1992) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Andrelee Mojica (the valedictorian of PMA Class of 2007), the damage control officer, who is one of three women officers on the ship.

‘Lost command’

The first weeks of their new assignment were a whirlwind of activities for the chosen 21.

All underwent rigorous physical exams and intensive neuro-psychiatric evaluations (NPE), the latter crucial in determining whether each person had the mental and psychological capacity to withstand the challenge of being away from their families for an indeterminate period, the stability to face up to the pressure-cooker demands of a new environment in a different country, and the rigor to learn new technologies and procedures within a relatively short period of time.

Cruz credits the NPE evaluation for the relatively problem-free dynamic that currently governs the quality of interaction among the ship’s crew. “We had met each other before [this mission], but only casually,” the commanding officer says. “But somehow we bonded immediately.”

On February 25 this year, the group landed in San Francisco and were immediately whisked to Alameda (about 20 minutes away) to board the USCGC Boutwell, the sister ship of the Hamilton, for hands-on training.

What they didn’t anticipate was that they would be cut off from all communications with the outside world for two full months as the Boutwell crew carried out a highly classified US Coast Guard anti-drug smuggling operation that brought the vessel to as far as Ecuador and El Salvador.

With no telephone or Internet access, the Filipino navymen on board joked among themselves that they had become a “lost command.” Worse, they had to endure meals without rice for weeks on end, which as we know, is tantamount to torture for Filipinos from the Philippines.

“We had salad, potatoes, meat, potatoes and potatoes,” one of them remarked. No wonder they had to go through the NPEs. They were only allowed to check in with their families when the tsunami in Japan happened.

A US Coast Guard tugboat begins to steer the BRP Gregorio del Pilar out of US waters to proceed to the Philippines.

When the Boutwell returned to San Diego, the Hamilton cutter was ready to sail for Alameda for the formal turnover to the Philippine government. Cruz and his crew were given permission to ride with the ship to her new destination, but as passengers, since training on the actual vessel (already named Ex Hamilton after its decommissioning) would start only after the May 13 ceremony.

Gregorio del Pilar

With the Hamilton rechristened Gregorio del Pilar, Cruz took command of the vessel.

The rest of the crew were flown in from the Philippines to work alongside their American counterparts. By then, the original 21 have had enough experience with gas turbine engine technology to be confident that they would be able to get the ship to sail.

For a journey across the Pacific, however, more weeks of intense training were required.

Finally, in early July, they did a four-day run at sea along the coast of California for a test of the crew’s capabilities and the ship’s sea-worthiness. After that, the American trainors de-boarded and the Filipino naval officers and men were on their own.

As soon as she reaches her new homeport, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar will undergo some refurbishing before deployment to the Spratlys.

When confronted with the usual saber-rattling by powerful nations during territorial disputes, the Philippines now has a gleaming big saber to brandish in return.—Newsbreak

(Portions of this story have been published in Philippine News, July 15-21, 2011.)

CATEGORY: Defense & Security
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  1. Rvl Gimenez says:

    Re: the last line of the article. “When confronted with the usual saber-rattling by powerful nations during territorial disputes, the Philippines now has a gleaming big saber to brandish in return.”

    Surely, the author cannot be talking about China which is testing and about to officially launch its first ever aircraft career, the Shi Lang, which at 60,000 tons carries 40 combat and recon aircraft (planes and choppers).

    While the Shi Lang cannot by any means be compared to any in the US Navy fleet, it is twice the size of India’s Virat which displaces 30,000 tons, carrying 30 planes and choppers.

    Shi Lang was an unfinished Russian career, bought as-is-where-is by the Chinese some 15 years ago and thus about half the age of the 46-year old PF-15 Gregorio del Pilar (NOT, 30-something as widely reported because she was launched as the USCGC Hamilton in March 1965, although commissioned in March 1967.)

    I’m sorry,but glad as I am about our Navy’s acquisition, I cannot agree that PF-15 is “…a gleaming big saber to brandish in return.” Besides, why brandish a saber which is nothing but the container of a sword and can hardly be lethal?

  2. Rvl Gimenez says:

    Apologies re the meaning of “saber”. My bad! :-(

  3. Richard Cavosora says:

    Correction: “a high endurance cutter with close-in weapons system” The close-in weapons system (a high-powered gatling gun to protect the ship from missles or aircraft) was removed from the BRP Gregorio del Pilar before it was transferred to the PH Navy.

    In any case, the ship will provide a much needed capability for presence in West Philippines Sea although it will not be much a factor for force deterrence. Please, let us have no illusions about a shooting war that nobody wants in the first place. Just mere and constant presence in the area will be a political deterrent if not a military one.

    Whatever China drops into a reef to establish a physical presence can now be quickly removed by the PH Navy with the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. That is better than nothing.

  4. Alec Almazan says:

    At this point it’s an exaggeration to describe the BRP Gregorio del Pilar as a force deterrent. Her single 76 mm Oto Melara deck gun is close to useless against China’s modern destroyers and frigates which can launch sea skimming, anti-ship cruise missiles over the horizon. Sure she is big – a bigger target that is. The only thing that would probably keep her from being sunk on sight, would be the Chinese gunners laughing so hard they wouldn’t be able to aim properly. If the Chinese are to take the Gregorio del Pilar seriously, the Philippine Navy has to upgrade her defensive capabilities to enable her to survive and fight in a combat environment. This means arming her with the latest anti-ship missiles and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) as well as state-of-the-art fire control and electronic warfare systems. Until this is done the Navy should think twice about sending her into harm’s way.

  5. We can ill-afford expensive big ships like these with minimal firepower and already 44 years old. What is needed are more of the locally manufactured Andrada class patrol boats upgraded with ship-ship missiles, torpedoes and anti-aircraft weapons. We should have a hundred of these heavily-armed patrol boats all over the archipelago conducting guerilla type operations.

  6. jerome justin says:

    can’t agree more with rengab. in the mid 60′s a komar class russian-built egyptian missile boat fired it’s missile sitting on an egyptian port hitting and sinking a israeli destroyer in full battle mode. get those cheap fast komar boats and equip them with sams and ssms and you will have a formidable force. we do not need those large and lumbering old ships with no missile capability, they are just sitting ducks for target practice.

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