Philippine navy chief sacked for 'jeopardising' frigate deal

Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado (right) was abruptly removed from office on Dec 19, 2017.
Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado (right) was abruptly removed from office on Dec 19, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - The commander of the Philippine Navy was sacked for "insubordination" after he jeopardised a 15.5 billion-peso (S$414 million) project for two new warships, the defence minister said on Wednesday (Dec 20).

Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado was abruptly removed from office on Tuesday with military officials saying only that the surprise move followed "instructions from higher authorities".

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on Wednesday he obtained permission from President Rodrigo Duterte to remove Mercado owing to the frigate project, which has been awarded to a South Korean shipbuilder.

"I had to do it because he (Mercado) was jeopardising the project," said Lorenzana, who sworn in a temporary navy flag commander in Mercado's place on Tuesday.

The government signed a contract last year with Hyundai Heavy Industries to build two frigates to be delivered to the Philippine navy in 2020 and 2021.

Lorenzana said the project was already several months behind schedule because the navy had failed to complete on time a "critical design review" on the vessels before the contractor could start work.

He alleged the navy chief was delaying the project in order to force the government and Hyundai to award a separate contract for the warships' "combat management system" to another foreign company.

"To me that is tantamount to insubordination," Lorenzana added.

Mercado made it known he preferred a system offered by another company for operational reasons, Lorenzana said, while adding that the admiral is not under investigation for corruption.

Mercado, who has been reassigned to a subordinate navy post, has not responded to Lorenzana's allegations in public.

The Philippine Navy has become run down in recent decades and even featured US craft from World War II until Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, begun a modest modernisation programme in 2010.

Manila has since acquired two former US Coast Guard cutters and three landing craft from Australia as the country became embroiled in a dispute with China over waters and islands in the South China Sea.

But Duterte has since backed away from asserting his country's maritime claims and focused on repairing ties with Beijing.