Philippine navy chief removed for questioning frigate deal

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, file photo, Philippine Navy Chief, Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado poses for a group photograph during the opening of International Maritime Security Symposium in Bali, Indonesia. According to Philippines military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo, navy chief Mercado has been relieved of his duties, reportedly because of differences with other security officials over a frigate deal, officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati, File)

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine defense secretary said Wednesday the navy chief was removed from his post for defiantly opposing an already-approved deal to buy two frigates from a South Korean shipbuilder and causing delays to the acquisition of the warships.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana's remarks about the cause of Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado's relief is a rare public disclosure of a top-level disagreement within the military and defense department. Mercado was not being investigated for any wrongdoing and was moved to another military office.

"I have lost trust and confidence in his integrity and leadership," Lorenzana told reporters. "He goes around, forum shopping and he talks about rescinding the contract if the company he was introducing won't be chosen ... I had to recommend his relief and it was approved by the president."

Lorenzana said he questioned Mercado's insistence that one company be granted a contract to install a defense feature, the "combat management system," on the two frigates when that had already been included in the deal granted to Hyundai Heavy Industries.

Before he signed the 15.5 billion-peso ($310 million) contract awarding the frigate deal to the South Korean shipbuilder in October last year, Lorenzana said he asked top navy officials, including Mercado, if they were happy with the agreement. He said nobody raised any major issue at the time.

Mercado's actions delayed the frigates deal by about four months, the defense chief said, adding the Philippines can return the frigates to the shipbuilder if the agreed features are not installed.

In a letter seen by The Associated Press, Lorenzana complained that Mercado, through his subordinates, "had continued to trifle" with the Department of Defense's decision to approve the deal with Hyundai Heavy Industries.

Mercado's attitude of "orchestrating such unmeritorious issue does not speak well of his leadership for which this department had lost its confidence in him to lead this important major service command," said the letter from Lorenzana, who sought President Rodrigo Duterte's approval to relieve the navy chief from his post.

Mercado did not immediately respond to a request from reporters for comment.

Mercado, who is retiring from the military in March, was temporarily replaced by Rear Adm. Robert Empedrad, who had opposed Mercado's position on the frigate deal. Lorenzana said he would recommend a permanent navy chief to Duterte.

The government has scrambled for years to raise funds to modernize its military, one of Asia's most ill-equipped, to deal with decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies and protect its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

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