In swan song, retiring Navy chief lights flare vs criticisms
SANGLEY POINT, Cavite — Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, who took over the reins of the Philippine Navy two years ago at the height of the controversy over the P16-billion frigate acquisition project, will cap off his 37-year military career on Monday, Feb. 3.
Days before his departure, he spoke about his leadership at the Navy and the criticisms hurled at him on the onset.
Empedrad was AFP deputy chief of staff for reservist and retiree affairs (J9) based in Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP headquarters, when he was named officer-in-charge (OIC) of the Philippine Navy in December 2017. His predecessor, Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado, had been unceremoniously removed.
Mercado was sacked by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for his supposedly inappropriate insistence to acquire a certain brand of combat management system (CMS) chosen by the Navy.
The Philippine government had signed a deal with Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) for two frigates for P16 billion in 2016, touted as the most significant procurement project of the Philippine Navy. It was the selection of the ships’ CMS that triggered a controversy.
Mercado’s sudden relief was a surprise to many in the military because it skirted traditional channels and he was still three months from retirement.
But Empedrad, who previously headed the Project Management Team (PMT) of the frigate project, also stunned many when he was designated as OIC.
After all, it could have been the Navy vice commander and not somebody based in Camp Aguinaldo who could have taken over as OIC until a new Navy chief was named. Critics even said that Empedrad was the “least qualified” among all candidates for Navy chief.
The frigate deal controversy drew attention that was enough to prompt investigations by the Senate and House of Representatives.
“I became the flag officer in command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy in the most unusual manner,” Empedrad said in a speech during pre-retirement honors at a naval base here on Wednesday (Jan. 28).
“I became FOIC with the frigate controversies with full Senate and congressional hearings,” he said.
“When my designation was only acting [capacity], many senior officers began to challenge my qualifications,” Empedrad said.
“Sabi nila, kesyo hindi daw ako nag-command ng naval forces (They said I didn’t command a naval forces unit). Many questioned my integrity. And suddenly, lots of derogatory reports were published against me in the newspapers,” he said.
“People who knew me were the ones attacking me. But the Lord was with me and a month later, the President approved my appointment effective on the day I assumed my acting capacity,” he went on.
Empedrad said he did not seek anyone’s backing to become the Navy chief.
“‘Di ko kailangan lumapit kanino man para ma-promote (I didn’t need to ask anyone to get promoted) or seek his favor or kiss his ass,” he said.
“I never sought anyone’s help to make me the flag officer in command of the Philippine Navy. I was ready to retire as J9 but God has different plans for me.”
At the Senate hearing in February 2018, Mercado and Empedrad, who both previously led the Project Management Team (PMT) of the frigate project at some point in their careers, were at odds on the selection of the CMS.
The Philippine Navy’s Technical Working Group and PMT had selected Tacticos Thales for the CMS, which met their requirement of Tactical Data Link 16 (TDL 16) compatibility.
The CMS is regarded as the “brain” of warships, which integrates the weapons, sensors and communications systems. The TDL 16 is a military network used by NATO and allied forces to exchange data in real time.
HHI recommended two brands of CMS for the Philippine warships — Tacticos Thales and Hanwha Systems. It first offered Tacticos Thales to the Navy, but later suggested to use Naval Shield of Hanwha Systems, which was not yet compatible with TDL 16.
Hanwha Systems was first declared compliant after the post-qualification assessment conducted in June 2016. But a month before the contract signing in October of the same year, the TDL 16 requirement was added in the technical specifications, which meant the disqualification of Hanwha.
At the Senate, where he finally had the opportunity to defend himself, Mercado said Hanwha’s Naval Shield did not meet the Navy’s TDL 16 requirement for future frigates. But Empedrad, who sided with the defense department to accept Hanwha’s proposal, said that the shipbuilder had the “sole right” to choose the CMS and the TDL 16 compatibility was only an added feature inserted in the contract.
Hanwha Systems had said in 2018 that TDL 16 compatibility with the CMS for the frigates would be in place by 2019. But in May last year, Hanwha said compatibility won’t happen until 2020 because of issues between the Korean armed forces and US requirements.
With a few months away from the expected delivery of the two frigates, it remained to be seen whether the TDL 16 requirement would be met.
Some insiders are now concerned that the Navy’s upcoming corvette acquisition project might run into the same fate as the frigates project. The two corvettes worth P28 billion would likely be built by the same shipbuilder.
‘Period of transformation’
The frigate controversy simmered down shortly after the hearings ended and the Navy found itself quietly moving on despite unanswered questions. Empedrad continued to lead the Navy, in what he described as a “period of transformation.”
Under his tenure, he said the Navy acquired 5 TC-90 aircraft from Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force; 4 boats from China; 6 brand new multi-purpose attack craft; 8 amphibious assault vehicles for the Philippine Marines; 43 new vehicles and the Pohang-class corvette BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39).
But he said he also had to let go of vintage ships like BRP Rajah Humabon (PS-11); BRP Salting (PG-112); BRP Sultan Kudarat (PS-22); BRP Cebu (PS-28); BRP Rizal (PS-74) and BRP Nicolas Mahusay (PC-119).
In 2020, Empedrad said the Navy was ditching 22 more commissioned vessels as part of a phaseout plan, which he said was a step toward the acquisition of new assets and to save on maintenance costs.
There are no immediate replacement for the old vessels, except for the two brand new missile-capable frigates from South Korea set for delivery in the coming months.
President Rodrigo Duterte had approved the acquisition of 8 fast attack interdiction craft with missile; 2 corvettes; 2 landing docks; 6 offshore patrol vessels; and 2 submarines, but these are all awaiting funds and no contracts have been awarded so far.
However, the outgoing Navy chief assured the sailors and Marines present at his pre-retirement ceremony that the budget for 8 Shaldag vessels is close to getting the President’s signature, while the construction of corvettes, landing docks and offshore patrol vessels may possibly begin this year.
Empedrad, a member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) “Sinagtala” Class of 1986, would be replaced by Philippine Fleet commander Rear Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo.
“I am retiring with a heavy heart because there is much to be done as we transform from a legacy Navy to a strong and credible Navy that can protect our vast maritime waters and secure the Filipinos’ future,” the outgoing Navy chief said.
“Be that as it may, I am relieved as well. I could be given a position by our beloved President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, where I can be of big help to our Navy again.”
Edited by TSB
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