Defense officials, under questioning by Senate probers on Monday, sought to clear Palace Special Assistant Christopher “Bong” Go from allegations of anomalies linking President Duterte’s trusted aide to the controversial P15.7-billion purchase of two missile-capable Philippine Navy frigates.
The frigate acquisition was initiated by the Aquino administration in October 2015 to beef up the country’s territorial defense, as well as disaster response capabilties and “reinforce the Navy’s capable warships, including two former US Coast Guard ships.”
Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson Sr. recalled that a huge amount was initially earmarked by Congress for the Navy acquisition, but added: “something went wrong in this deal to procure [naval assets].”
“Did Bong Go have any interest on behalf of his principal?” Lacson asked pointblank, to which Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana promptly replied: “No, your honor.”
Former Navy Chief Adm. Ronald Mercado, who was relieved for “insubordination” amid controversies surrounding the acquisition of the frigates combat management system (CMS), also affirmed to the senators that “Bong Go never approached me as Flag Officer in Command to favor one of the bidders.”
Presidential Spokesman Harry L. Roque Jr., meanwhile said, Malacañang is set to present documentary evidence today that Mercado made several trips to the Thales Tacticos office in the Netherlands.
Mercado and the Navy’s technical working group members pushed for Thales Tacticos of the Netherlands as contractor for the CMS of the Navy’s frigate acquisition project, while Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), which bagged the 18-billion contract for the delivery of two new frigates, selected Naval Shield of Hanwha Thales of South Korea as the CMS contractor.
Roque said it “was very clear” that Go did not intervene on the controversial frigate deal.
Perhaps tomorrow, I will get the documentary evidence that his interest in Tacticos goes beyond the reputation of Tacticos, that he has actually made several trips to the corporate headquarters of Tacticos. And of course, we don’t know why he made these trips to the Tacticos office,” he said at a Palace news briefing.
In filing Senate Resolution 584, minority senators asked the Committee on National Defense and the Congressional oversight panel to open an inquiry into the P331.62 billion Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program of which only P63.39 billion was released.
The resolution noted that the amount of P25 billion was alloted in the 2018 budget, the same amount appropriated in last year’s budget for the AFP modernization program, which included funding for the acquisition, among others, of brand new attack helicopters, tanks and other military hardware.
The resolution added that the first military contract signed under the Duterte administration, seen as the biggest item in the AFP modernization program, is the completion of the acquisition of the two navy frigates that was initiated by the Aquino administration.
However, Sen. Gregorio B. Honasan, Senate Defense Committee chairman, voiced concern that the Department of National Defense (DND) steering committee formed by Lorenzana to oversee the frigate acquisition, chaired by DND Undersecretary Raymundo Elefante, was dissolved in the first week of 2017, amid allegations that the formation of the panel violated the Government Procurement Law which did not provide for such a steering committee, but for a technical working group to serve as technial arm for the bids and awards committee composed of technical, financial and legal experts.
The resolution recalled that an October 20, 2017, a DND report on the status of the frigate acquisition project confirmed four companies participated in the bidding with Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers submitting the lowest calculated bid of P15,047,704,000 and HHI at P15,744,571,584 as second lowest bidder.
Lorenzana, under questioning by Lacson assured Senate probers that soon after he took over the Defense post, the DND conducted further review and proceeded to greenlight the project.
“When we arrived, it [frigate deal] was almost done, so we signed the award,” he told senators, adding “there was presumption of regularity.”
The defense chief added they will proceed to implement the AFP modernization program, including the acquisition of defense assets “because it is a perfected contract.” He added that the frigates are expected “to be delivered next year.”
Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV, insisted, however, that Go and Lorenzana would not have proceeded with the project, indicating the two officials “ will not act without order from the top.”
For his part, Go told senators he attended the Senate inquiry “to clear my name so people will know the truth [that] I did not intervene in the acquisition of the two frigates and I am ready to face my accusers.”
This developed as Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto recommended on Monday that the Philippines should consider building its own warships since the country is already considered as the world’s fourth-biggest shipbuilder.
Recto noted, for instance, that the shipyards in Cebu are “very big.”
The senator found encouragement from former Navy Chief Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado, who said the contract on the two frigates from Korea, in fact, stipulates a turnover to Philippine side of the design plans used for the frigate, “so we can use these if we want to reproduce our own ships.”
Sen. Richard J. Gordon, in backing the idea, agreed that Filipinos have the capacity to ramp-up the Philippines’s shipbuilding industry.