Q&A: Ousted PH Navy chief Ronald Mercado on the warships deal

Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado was removed from his post just before Christmas last year for alleged "insubordination" over the P15.5-billion project to acquire two warships. He remains in the military on "floating status," meaning he reports to the office of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Rey Guerrero without a specific assignment. He is scheduled to retire in March 2018.

 He agreed to give an interview on Monday, January 22, when reporters chanced upon him inside Camp Aguinaldo. This transcript was shared by the Defense Press Corps (DPC). 

Mercado knows the project by heart. Before becoming the chief of the Western Command (Wescom) that guards the West Philippine Sea and later Flag Officer in Command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy, Mercado led the first technical working group (TWG) that crafted the technical specifications of the warships.

Mercado's statements below were arranged according to the issues raised against the implementation of the contract. 

The project is the subject of a two-part investigative report published on Rappler:
Part 1: Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships
Part 2: Ousted PH Navy chief wanted 'proven technology' for warships

ON HIS ALLEGED INSUBORDINATION 

On his "fixation" with CMS supplier Tacticos Thales 

Tahimik lang ako. Ang daming sinasabi na ako namimilit ngayon. But the thing is, when I took over, 'yun ang position ng Navy. Kaya nga sabi ko, once I present it [in a congressional hearing], malalaman. Everyone will know
.

[The CMS] is actually just one of the many issues. To be honest, it's not me. It's the project management team that is raising the issues. Siyempre ako, I'm the Navy chief
.

Hanwha is not capable of doing the tasks required by the Navy?

According to the project management team. Kasi very technical nga yan.

The contract doesn't say that it should be Thales?

Wala. Specs lang.

Hyundai offered to install Thales in the plans it presented to the Navy?

Oo. Everything was offered. By law, bidding yan e. You cannot go outside of what was offered.

ON THE WHITE PAPER THAT ORIGINATED FROM MALACANG

What happened to the white paper that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana sent to him last year?

M
ay insinuation kasi na that piece of paper is with me. It's not with me. 'Yun ang sinabi ko. Pagkabigay sa akin, binigay ko kay [Rear Admiral Robert] Empedrad for him to act on kasi trabaho 'yun ng project management team.

'Yung note, kumuha ako [ng kopya ngayon] kasi nahihiya ako baka tanungin ako [sa congressional hearing] hindi ko masagot kung ano yung nakasulat doon. Basta ang alam ko, it was something about Hanwha and Thales. 'Yung note, I know that. I'm very familiar with it. I'm the Flag-Officer-In-Command. If you have gone to my office before, you will see there are so many papers. Generally when you read the first page, alam mo na kung what staff will undertake it. Gagawa ka agad ng note to N1 (Assistant Chief of Naval Staff for Personnel), "Please act on this." Hindi mo na kailangang basahin lahat. You will not have time to really read. The next time you will read it is kapag dumaan na sa staff and they do the homework. Pagdating sayo babasahin mo na yun. Ewan ko ha. Kanya kanya yan. But ako, if I read everything, I will not be able to finish my work. Ang dami kasi niyan.

ON THE MEETING IN MALACANANG

You know about the meeting in Malacañang?

I do not have a knowledge on that. Pero naalala ko noong binigay ko sa kanya [Admiral Empedrad], nagpaalam sya sa akin. "Sir may ipe-present ako doon sa Malacañang." "Ah, bakit?" "Sir, pinag..." "Sige, ayusin mo." 'Yun lang. Ide-defend daw yung position ng Navy.


Did you ask Admiral Empedrad who he met in Malacañang? 

Hindi na. But nag-feedback sa akin.

What did he present? 

'Yun nga yung to justify bakit 'yung preference ng Navy is Thales Tacticos. 'Yung CMS na yun. So 'yun. Okay and after that I forgot it.

When did the meeting with Admiral Empedrad in Malacañang take place?

It came after the letter (white paper). Kasi binigay ko yung letter, basta sinabi ko, 'I-comply mo yung directive ha, kasi may directive doon to write a letter.' 'Yes sir. Ako na ang bahala.' Tapos after a day or two yata sabi nya, 'Sir, pinare-report ako doon sa kwan.' 'O sige, i-brief mo.' Ang tinanong ko lang pala sa kanya is, "Paano mo pala ma-justify 'yung after sales service?" Ang sabi nya siya na ang bahala. Afterwards nung nagpresent sya, sinagot naman nya ako. "Sir na-research namin na there were [countries], I think Indonesia, na nag-reorder ng Thales. Sir, that's an indication they are satisified with the after sales service kasi nag-reorder e."

Did Admiral Empedrad change his position?

It's better you ask him. Pero when I was the FOIC, my people stood by the selection.... I don't think my people will look kindly at me [if I didn't support them]. I was the FOIC di ba? I gave them instructions na sundin yung contract. Ngayon, may nire-raise sila tapos hindi ko sila susuportahan? Pangit yun.

Is there a case against Admiral Empedrad?

I will not make a statement about that one. In those discussions, I'd like to center it on the frigate. I don't want to deviate from any topic. I dont want na ma-deviate yung usapan sa frigate.

– Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado

ON THE CAPABILITIES OF HANWHA AND TACTICOS

Capability-wise how different is the CMS of Hanwha from Thales?

You can research that in the Internet. It has been there for so long. In fact 'yung tatlong cutter na nakuha natin sa US, kapag pumunta kayo sa Combat Information Center nila makikita mo 'yung mga frames – although kinuha na ng US 'yung mga equipmmnet – pero yung frames nakalagay Thales Thales Thales. Many navies are using it including Indonesia.

NATO countries also use Thales?

Well NATO kasi Europe 'yan. Tapos Thailand, Singapore yata. Ang dami, it's proven

Other navies obviously go to systems that are proven. You spend so much tapos palpak, 'di ba? Saka that's a combat ship. If you want our country to be defended well, sa mga tao at least they have that assurance na yung barko natin kayang lumaban.

Sa amin lang naman is, I like that frigate because... everyone in the Navy wants that frigate because it's a combat ship. Anong mangyari sa Navy natin kung walang punch diba? You cannot have only transport ship. We should have a punch. The frigate is the capital ship and this is the first in the history of the Navy that we will have a frigate that is newly constructed tapos missile capable, air surface, undersea.

Compatibility wise, which is compliant? Hanwha or Thales?

The issue is Link 16. Anyway, I will not discuss that one. I read that there is going to be an investigation. I don't know if it's in the House or the Senate. It's an opportunity for me to provide [clarification on] this issue.

ON THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS IN THE CONTRACT

Mercado served as first chief of TWG

Ako yung pinakaunang [chief ng] Technical Working Group (TWG). Matagal ako dyan. Ako 'yung gumawa actually ng final specs (specifications). Hindi ko naman sinasabing master ko [pero] alam na alam ko. I worked with a group. May in-charge sa communications, mga radio. May in-charge sa weapons. May in charge sa makina. May in charge sa hull. Marami 'yan sila. Tapos mayroon akong dalawang senior officer in charge sa deployment kung saan gagamitin yung barko. Sila 'yung nagka-craft then, 'yun nga, I was the head noong ipa-approve yung final specs. Pero noong bidding na, na-re-assign na ako. 

Pumasok na si Admiral Empedrad. From bidding up to contract signing, siya 'yung TWG. After the contract signing, siya pa rin pero 'yung tawag na yun sa kanila is Project Management Team kaya ganun ang nangyari
.

Empedrad also favored Thales?

When he was in the Project Management Team.

Were the specs altered?

No, no. 'Yung tech specs kasi ng frigate was more on performance. Hindi kami nagbigay ng design because we have to we don't have that capability, hindi kagaya ng US. 'Yung sa amin sinasabi nila the ship should run
, that's it. Tapos bahala ka na.

It is performance based. Kapag diniliver, we will judge it on the performance. Patatakbuhin namin 'yan. 'Yung sea state kasi mayroon mga science yan.

ON COMPETITION TO WIN NAVY CONTRACTS

Hanwha wants to win the contract because it is eyeing other contracts in the Navy?

I do not have any information there. Pero 'yung AFP modernization natin e ang dami talagang gustong sumali. The navy has a contract for combat systems upgrade [for other projects].

Whenever I deal with the General Headquarters and the Department of National Defense tungkol sa frigate – basta yung issues that are raised by the project management team – I endorse it syempre.  I'm the navy chief e. Saka my instruction to them when I became the FOIC is to ensure that the provisions in the contract, particularly 'yung technical specs are followed. Kasi alam mo naman, akong gumawa noon. I can claim na I headed the crafting of the technical specs. It's somethinng close to my heart. Kailangan sundin natin
.

ON CALLS TO CANCEL THE PROJECT

Is the project delayed?

I don't know. Right now, when I was relieved – that's December – I think there was some interview given by Admiral Empedrad and I think he said it's still on schedule. Kasi yung [steel] cutting I think ay sa April pa naman.

What can you say about recommendations to scrap the contract?

I really want the project to be fullfilled following the provisions of the contract. I do not want something like what happened to yung sa.... Everything will be subjected to audit later on, kawawa naman yung mga bata who affixed their signature tapos sinabing bakit ganoon.

What will happen to the morale of the Navy if the project is cancelled?

I cannot answer that
.

ON RUMORS DRAGGING CHINA

Is it possible that China intervened?

I've read that people's opinions on so many [issues]. But you know, we will be talking about so many things if we stretch our minds beyond the issue. Ako, I do not have any information on that. I just like to center doon sa project na ito. 

Alam mo, when it was announced in the news na may contract signing ganoon, there were many retired navy officers nag-text sa akin. "Ang galing mo, Ronnie. Ang tagal naming pinangarap 'yung frigate. Natupad na ngayon." E kasi kapag nakita mo, pride din yan. Kapag nakita nyo mga foreign na ships kapag pumupunta dito umaakyat kami ni Presidente, nakatingin na lang ako sa missile. Samantalang sa atin gun pa rin. Tapos manual pa. E ngayon fully automated na, from loading, extraction, firing.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives sought for an investigation into the frigates deal. The Senate has confirmed a probe but has not released a schedule. – Rappler.com

Check other stories on the frigates project published on Rappler: