From pandemic to sea dispute: Outgoing Navy Chief Bacordo looks back on challenging tenure

Published June 7, 2021, 2:52 PM

by Martin Sadongdong

Leading the Philippine Navy (PN) at the time of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic was one of the most challenging roles that Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo has done in his career as a military man.

After assuming as the PN’s 38th Flag Officer in Command on Feb. 3, 2020, Bacordo will retire from the service on Tuesday, June 8, and he could not help but look back on his one-year-and-three-month long stint as the Navy Chief.

Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (left), and Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy (right), engage in a discussion during the former’s visit at the Bonifacio Naval Station in Taguig City on May 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine Navy)

“My tenure as Navy Chief may have been among the most difficult times in recent history due to the unprecedented global pandemic caused by COVID-19,” Bacordo told reporters during his exit interview on Monday, June 7.

Due to COVID-19, the Department of National Defense (DND) had to allocate P13.9 billion of its 2020 budget to fund the government’s pandemic response. Of these amount, P9.4 billion was supposed to go to the second “Horizon” of the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“For me, the biggest blow was to our modernization efforts,” he said. “First of all, we all we were not able to program COVID in 2020, it was unexpected.”

The pandemic forced the delay of the arrival of missile-capable frigate BRP Antonio Luna (FF151), the sister ship of BRP Jose Rizal (FF150), from fourth quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021. It was commissioned into service only last March 19.

Further, the pandemic also delayed the delivery of nine fast attack interdiction craft missile (FAIC-M) by more than a year. The P10-billion acquisition project was supposed to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2020 but due to the pandemic, the first set of the Shaldag Mark 5 vessels are now expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2022.

Bacordo was also saddened by the delay in the delivery of six offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), the two corvettes it plans to buy, and the shelved P70-billion Submarine Acquisition Project.

“Our offshore patrol vessel project, the six offshore patrol vessels, we have projected to have the first of the six delivered by 2021. Right now, [no] contract signing to date. The two corvettes [have] the same story. [We] projected to have the first of the two delivered by 2022 but right now there is no contract signing to date,” Bacordo said.

Also, Bacordo bared he was supposed to sign the contract for the procurement of two submarines, the first pair for the Navy, in the second semester of 2021 or first semester of 2022 with France, Korea, India, and Singapore among the interested bidders. But now, there is no definite date yet when the project will resume as the Navy has focused its budget spending on COVID-19 response.

He, however, stressed that securing the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine Rise, and the southern Philippines remain to be the Navy’s “immediate concerns” that need to be prioritized.

TIGHT WATCH – Crew members of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel BRP Cabra monitor the departure of seven Chinese militia vessels from the Sabina Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on April 27, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard)

“Believe me when I say that if we acquire those submarines, it is a credible deterrence against all countries already going in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in our extended continental shelf, and in our contiguous zones,” he said

Aside from these, the Navy is also planning to acquire at least five units of Cyclone-class patrol ships from the United States for internal security operations; and TC12 Huron twin-engine turboprop planes for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

Securing West PH Sea

The modern assets mentioned by Bacordo were intended to increase the frequency of patrols by the military in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and other territorial waters of the country amid the incursion of China.

In March of this year, more than 200 Chinese vessels were monitored by the authorities in the WPS. The Defense and Foreign Affairs departments have protested the apparent incursion of the Chinese ships in the country’s territory.

“The harshest criticisms are always related to our response in the West Philippine Sea,” Bacordo admitted.

As the Navy Chief, Bacordo is considered also as a force provider which means that he is tasked to provide and prepare the ships and the personnel for deployment in their missions, including patrolling the WPS.

“There is a bigger strategy higher than I am,” the Navy Chief noted, referring to President Duterte’s friendly approach to resolve the country’s maritime dispute with China.

“I see the strategy of the President and I believe in that strategy,” he maintained.

Successor, retirement plans

These are just some of the “problems” that will be inherited by the successor of Bacordo, who, as of this writing, has yet to be named by President Duterte.

AFP Chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana previously said that there was only one admiral that the Board of Generals (BOG) recommended to Duterte to replace Bacordo.

(Photo from Philippine Navy Facebook page)

Bacordo was mum on the identity of his successor.

“What I can advise to the next Chief of the Navy regarding these challenges [is that] these challenges will always be there so as the force provider, continue to capacitate our personnel. That’s the most important. Continue to capacitate also our vessels and our marine assets and our air assets. We should come up also with ways for the sustainment of these vessels,” he said.

After his retirement, Bacordo said he will spend time with his family for two months. However, he expressed openness to the idea of working again in a different capacity.

“Maybe for the next 60 days, I will spend it catching up with the lost time with wife and children, and also micromanaging our household. After 60 days, maybe it’s time for me to look for something that will keep me busy,” he said.

“Aside from let’s say sports or other leisure activities or other skills that I may learn, maybe I can accept work in a private firm on a consultancy basis. But I don’t want to work on an 8 to 5, Monday to Friday type. I’d rather be on an on-call basis,” he concluded.