Frigate Hearing: Threads worth Exploring
CHEERS TO Rappler for capturing salient points during the Senate probe on the Frigates Acquisition Project (FAP) of the Philippine Navy. The hearing was conducted Monday, February 19, following the controversy about the alleged intervention of Bong Go, Special Assistant to the President.
Reports in primetime newscasts and the three leading broadsheets stuck to summaries of the exchanges made during the hearings. Rappler’s articles evaluated information, further identifying key points to help the public understand the issue better.
The FAP is one of the two big-ticket modernization projects for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). This was initiated during the term of President Benigno Aquino III but was signed during the Duterte administration. Reports by Inquirer.net and Rappler in January looked into a “white paper” – a document that the Office of the Special Assistant to the President forwarded to the Department of National Defense (DND), suggesting interference from the Palace which Go hotly denies (“Palace had special interest in Navy’s selection of Navy’s weapons system supplier”; “Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships”).
In a report, Rappler explored the origin of the white paper and the meeting that transpired in the Palace (“5 nagging questions after the Senate frigates probe”).
Lloyd Christopher Lao, formerly undersecretary in Go’s office and now a commissioner in the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board, had spoken to Rappler in the past, admitting they sent the white paper to DND which was their SOP in dealing with complaints (“Undersecretary in Bong Go’s office confirms letter on frigate deal”).
During the hearing, Lao said that there are some Koreans who complained in the office; but he could not remember their names.
The report asked: “If it did come from Hyundai, why did representatives have to go to Malacañang while it was already in close coordination with the defense department and the Philippine Navy to implement the frigates project?” The report listed questions that should have been pursued in order to shed light on the issue:
- Who went to Malacañang to complain about the frigates project and what was their agenda?
- Who was the true source of the white paper given to Lorenzana endorsing Korean supplier Hanwha Systems?
- Who were all the people present in the Malacañang meeting and what did the meeting achieve?
- Did President Rodrigo Duterte play any role in the Malacañang probe into the frigates deal?
- Who wanted Philippine Navy Chief Ronald Mercado ousted?
Rappler’s follow-up report explored some issue threads (“Senate probe exposes root of frigates deal mess”).
The piece underscored Senator Panfilo Lacson’s point that the root of the mess is the provision allowing Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), contracted to build the frigates, to also choose the combat management systems (CMS) supplier even though the Philippine Navy is the end user.
This provision, which was inserted into the contract in September 2016, required that the CMS had to be compatible with Tactical Data Link (TDL) 16, a standard connection for the AFP. Hanwha, which HHI had chosen as CMS supplier will only be compatible with TDL 16 by 2019 hence the Navy’s preference for the already compatible Tacticos Thales.
If the white paper was arguing for Hanwha it was therefore disregarding the technical wisdom of the Navy. This context explains the marginal note that was signed by DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asking for a report/rebuttal on the complaint.
During the hearing, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said that as far as he knows, change of specifications cannot be done after the bid is opened.
Other media reports focused mostly on the denials of alleged wrongdoing or interference, without clarifying the context of the allegations.
Public hearings serve as an opportunity to probe underlying issues further. There is no date set yet for the follow-up hearing on the controversy. The Senate did draw out some leads worth exploring, such as irregularities in the procurement process. But the issue of whether the intervention of Palace officials was appropriate or not shouldn’t be simply laid to rest on the basis of simple denials.