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Navy chief relieved over P16-B frigate contract

Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado. INQUIRER PHOTO

Published: 2:07 p.m., Dec. 19, 2017 | Updated: 11:13 p.m., Dec. 19, 2017)

Navy Flag Officer in Command (FOIC) Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado was sacked on Tuesday amid controversy involving a weapons system procurement plan.

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Mercado’s relief was immediate and surreptitious, shocking many in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which holds its founding anniversary on Wednesday.

He was replaced by Rear Adm. Robert Empedrad, the AFP deputy chief of staff for reserve and retirees affairs (J9).

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Robert Empedrad

The change of command in the Philippine Navy surprised many, even those in the Armed Forces themselves. This contributed photo shows AFP chief of staff Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero handing over the Navy saber to Rear Adm. Robert Empedrad, who took over Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado who was unceremoniously relieved as Navy Flag Officer In Command (FOIC). Guerrero is seen standing to Empedrad’s left.

Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero, the AFP chief of staff, swore in Empedrad at a change of command ceremony held at the Hall of Flags of the AFP General Headquarters.

Mercado, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1983, is set to retire in March next year. Empedrad is a member of PMA Class ’86.

Empedrad’s first public functions as Navy chief will be at the AFP Day at Camp Aguinaldo with President Duterte as guest of honor.

Mr. Duterte appointed Mercado as Navy chief on Nov. 12, last year.

Who ordered sacking?

It was not immediately known who ordered Mercado’s relief and who signed the appointment papers of Empedrad as the acting FOIC.

The procurement of the weapons system for the Navy’s P16-billion frigate acquisition program has been causing a stir within the command and the Department of National Defense since last year.

A government official told the Inquirer that Mercado had confided to him that he (Mercado) was being pressured into agreeing to a frigate contract with a stipulation that Hyundai Heavy Industries, the frigate contractor, had the right to choose the weapons systems to be installed on the warship.

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“Normally, the [buyer], which is the Navy, should have the sole right to choose what it wants for their ships. This was the reason that Mercado had been holding the line, insisting that the Navy must have the last say when it comes to the weapons system,” the official, who declined to be named, said.

The official added that Hyundai’s weapons system capabilities have yet to be tested and proven.

But another source from the defense department told the Inquirer that it was unclear why Mercado would complain about Hyundai being a choice to provide the management control system program, which includes the weapons system.

Part of the contract

The source said the management control system of the ship was included in the contract awarded to the company or supplier.

“The Navy’s own bid requirement said that there should be a specific control program or what the manufacturer will develop,” the source said, emphasizing the “or” in the contract.

The source wondered why it was only after the contract was signed in September last year that Mercado, already as FOIC, would say that the Navy wanted a specific command module system made by one company.

“It is a commonly used control management program, which will also control the weapons system and other systems on the ship,” the source said.

The source said that if Mercado and the Navy wanted this specific control management program, they should have said it before the contract was signed.

“The point is, the contract was already signed. FOIC (Mercado) wanted to cancel the entire contract. The people in the [defense department] had several meetings to discuss this, but after assessing everything, they decided that it would really be impossible to cancel the contract. They told FOIC that we will just have to go with what the contract states,” the source said.

Unprecedented

A former major service commander told the Inquirer that Mercado’s relief was “unprecedented in the manner, timing, and reason.”

He recalled that the last relief of a major service commander took place in 2003, when then Navy FOIC Rear Adm. Guillermo Wong incurred the ire of some Marine officers, prompting the then AFP chief of staff, Gen. Angelo Reyes, to move him to a different post.

Wong, just three months into his job as Navy chief, instead offered to retire early.

“But at least, they had a proper and public turnover of command and it was not unceremonious. This time, it felt that [the AFP] was hiding something because there was no prior official announcement,” the retired military official said.

Reporters got wind of Mercado’s relief hours after Guerrero swore in Empedrad at around 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

Military change of command ceremonies are usually elaborate, following military tradition, and, most important, are public events.

At 1:59 p.m., the AFP spokesperson, Col. Edgard Arevalo, sent a text message to the Defense Press Corps, stating: “The AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has implemented the instructions from higher authorities to: assign VADM Ronald Joseph Mercado to the office of the Chief of Staff, AFP on Special Duties, and install Rear Adm. Robert Empedrad as Acting Flag Officer in Command, Philippine Navy.” /jpv /pdi

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TAGS: AFP, Empedrad, Mercado, Navy, relief, weapons system procurement
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