Magdalo sees P18-B frigates dispute behind Navy chief’s ‘unceremonious’ relief

Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado (L, standing) witnesses the signing of an agreement between Russian and Philippine defense officials when President Duterte (R) recently PRRD toured the Russian Ship Admiral Panteleyev and witnessed the Ceremonial Turnover of military equipment. PHOTO FROM MALACANANG PHOTO DEPT.

MANILA – The secretive, hasty and “unceremonious” relief of the Philippine Navy chief, just a few months before retirement, has caused alarm, and Magdalo party-list – whose core group includes former military officers who rebelled against a previous administration – said it was investigating allegations the relief was tied to a frigates procurement controversy.

“Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph S. Mercado was relieved of his post as Flag Officer-In-Command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy. He was replaced by Rear Adm Robert Empedrad, the current Deputy Chief of Staff for Retirees & Reservist Affairs, J9, AFP,” Magdalo said in a statement to media through party list Rep. Gary Alejano, a former naval officer.

“The relief is highly unusual and unceremonious in so many counts,” according to Magdalo, which said that while no reason was given, the group had received information that Mercado had vocally aired objections to a frigate acquisition deal that would be funded from the Armed Forces modernization program.

Magdalo raised these issues for calling Mercado’s relief “anomalous” and questionable:

1. VADM Mercado was expected to serve out his remaining three months in the service as FOIC. He is due to retire on March 18, 2018. It is rare that commanders are relieved a few months away from their retirement unless this is due to compelling reasons such as health or that he is accused of committing grave misconduct.

2. The relief of commanders is traditionally done at the Headquarters of the concerned unit, in this case, the Headquarters Philippine Navy in Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City. The event is usually attended by guests, subordinate commanders, troops and even members of the media. It is highlighted by service protocols and ceremonies to give honor to the outgoing commander in recognition of his service to country and dedication to duty.

In the case of Mercado, he was relieved without fanfare at the Hall of Flags inside General Headquarters building with few people in attendance.

3. The Change of Command – especially service commands – is a significant event in the AFP. It is a much anticipated event where names of candidates to the position are circulated among officers and enlisted personnel and even floated in the public. This culminates when one of them is chosen by the president of the country.

In the case of Mercado, there was no announcement of his relief. The relief was done almost in secret and very unceremonious.

4. It is very ungracious time to relieve a Commander- in the middle of an otherwise festive holiday season and just a day before our men and women celebrate the AFP Day.

“The question is why? I suspect that this has something to do with the lingering issue of the Navy’s frigate acquisition project,” said Alejano.

Months ago, he said received information from various sources “about anomaly in the ongoing procurement of frigates in the Navy. Accordingly, Mercado stood his ground that proceeding with the procurement of the frigates under the present contract would be disadvantageous both to the Navy – which is the end user – and to the Filipino taxpayers.”

On the other hand, Alejano added, “one information states that Mercado is delaying the project.

The Magdalo Party-list was gathering information on the matter when the relief of Mercado happened, according to Alejano. “The Magdalo will seek the truth behind the procurement and will make sure that anomalies, if there is any, are uncovered. It can be recalled that corruption in the AFP was one of the major reasons why members of the Magdalo rose up and protested 14 years ago.”

Alejano said Magdalo will file a resolution requesting the House Committee on National Defense and Security to conduct an inquiry as soon as Congress resumes session. “This is an important issue considering that this involves around P18 billion of the AFP’s modernization fund.”