Combat Management System not the only issue in frigates deal – ousted Navy chief

Carmela Fonbuena
Combat Management System not the only issue in frigates deal – ousted Navy chief
Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado maintains that Thales is the technology preferred by many navies around the world

MANILA, Philippines – Ousted Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado said the problem in the implementation of the multi-billion-peso frigates deal is not limited to the Combat Management System (CMS). 

“It 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,” Mercado said in a chance interview on Monday, January 22. (Q&A: Ousted PH Navy chief Ronald Mercado on the warships deal)

Mercado didn’t elaborate on the other issues, saying he would explain them in the Senate or the House of Representatives. But the white paper that originated from Malacañang also hinted on other issues bogging down the implementation of the project. 

“There is no specific logic or justification on (sic) the preferred list of PN where seven (7) equipment of Thales are included,” read the white paper that supposedly originated from Hanwha Systems, the supplier that the Navy rejected.

Shipbuilder Heavy Hyundai Industries offered two suppliers for the CMS of the warships: Hanwha Thales and Tacticos Thales. Hanwha Thales is now Hanwha Systems, however, because the Thales Group divested from the South Korean company in the middle of 2016.

The Navy chose Tacticos because it offered the Thales technology. Hanwha’s CMS, on the other hand, supposedly does not comply with the technical specifications agreed upon in 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

Thales technology

Aside from the CMS, the Navy also reportedly wanted Thales technology for the Tactical Data Link System. 

“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,” Mercado said. 

The Hanwha technology is currently not compatible with TDL 16, a connection standard adopted by the Philippine military in 2016 for its frigates, fighters, and long-range patrol aircraft.

Mercado maintained that Thales is the technology preferred by many Navies around the world. The same technology was originally installed in the 3 former United States Coast Guard Cutters donated by the US to the Philippine Navy, although these equipment were removed when the ships were decommissioned.

“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 equipment – pero ‘yung frames nakalagay Thales Thales Thales. Many navies are using it, including Indonesia,” said Mercado.

(The 3 cutters we got from the US, if you go to their Combat Information Center, you will see the frames. The equipment have been removed by the US, but you can read “Thales Thales Thales” in the frames). 

Malacañang intervenes

The Navy and the Department of National Defense were debating the CMS selection when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on January 12, 2017, was handed Hanwha’s white paper in Malacañang, which he relayed to Mercado. (READ: Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships)

Later, the office of Special Assistant to the President called the project officer back then – now Navy chief Rear Admiral Robert Empedrad – to a meeting in Malacañang to particularly discuss the CMS selection. (EXCLUSIVE: Undersecretary is Bong Go’s office confirm letter in frigates deal)

Mercado stood by Tacticos Thales despite directives from Lorenzana. He said he only supported the decision of the Navy’s Project Management Team (PMT) that was in charge of the implementation of the project. 

“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,” said Mercado. 

(I gave them instructions to follow the contract. If I don’t support them when they raised issues, it won’t look good.)

Mercado knows the project by heart. He served as the chief of the Technical Working Group (TWG) that finalized the technical specifications of the contract before it was bidded out. 

“I really want the project to be fullfilled following the provisions of the contract. I do not want something like what happened to [other projects where] everything will be subjected to audit later on. Kawawa naman ‘yung mga bata who affixed their signature tapos sinabing bakit ganoon (If this happens it’s the young officers who affixed their signature who will be punished),” said Mercado.

Mercado said the Navy had waited too long to have modern frigates and they had to do it right.

“I like that frigate because…everyone in the Navy wants that frigate because it’s a combat ship. Ano’ng mangyayari sa Navy natin kung walang punch, di ba (What will happen to our Navy if we don’t have a punch, right)?” Mercado said. 

“You cannot have only a 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 and is missile capable – air, surface, and undersea,” Mercado said.

He was unceremoniously relieved from his post before Christmas 2017. Lorenzana accused him of insubordination

Empedrad’s promise

Empedrad, the new Navy chief, vowed to continue the project to make sure there are no delays. The first frigate is supposed to be delivered by 2020.

“The frigate has not been delayed. The program continues and the delivery time is still the same. We are going to process that,” Empedrad told reporters on December 20, 2017, a day after he assumed the top post in the Navy.

Empedrad’s position on the controversy – whether he will stand by his position in favor of Tacticos Thales when he was chief of the Project Management Team (PMT) – remains unclear. 

In the interview in December 2017, Empedrad also discussed other issues that still needed to be resolved. 

“Maraming problema ang frigate. ‘Yung how to prepare the Philippine Navy for the frigate is the most important one. Halimbawa, saan namin ida-dock ‘yung frigate? Who will be the personnel that will man the frigate? Where do we get the missile kasi wala yung missile and the torpedo e? [It will take] two years to manufacture [them] so we have to process that so that pagdating ng frigate ay may bala,” said Empedrad.

(The frigates project has a lot of problems. How to prepare the Philippine Navy for the frigate is the most important one. For example, where do we dock the frigate? Who will be the personnel that will man the frigate? Where do we get the missile becaues it doesn’t have missiles and torpedo yet. [It will take] two years to manufacture [them] so we have to process that so the frigates will be armed when they arrived.) –

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