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During this time the Light Reaction Battalion participated in numerous operations, with the Army giving them a mandate to crack down hard on the Abu Sayyaf group. During one mission, snipers from a Light Reaction Company were tasked to find and eliminate a Abu Sayyaf High Value Target. They crept into their final firing positions, got eyes on the HVT, and requested permission to fire from the area commander. The area commander then told the LRC snipers to move closer as he doesn’t believe they can make an 800 meter shot. The commander, a Philippine Marine Corps officer, then moved his Marines into the area, perhaps to claim credit for the kill. The Marines were unaware and began pitching their tents without any plan. The Abu Sayyaf terrorists engaged the Marines kicking off a firefight.
SOFREP spoke to the Marine Corps officer and heard his side of the story. According to him he made the LRC snipers moved forward three times because he did not trust their ability to execute long distance sniper shots. From just a few hundred meters away, the LRC snipers fired but only injured the HVT in the leg. Days later, a Marine sniper successfully killed the target by putting a bullet right between his eyes. Which version of the story is factually correct is known only to the men who were there.
In 2007 four snipers from one of the Light Reaction Companies were deployed to find and kill an Moro Islamic Liberation Front breakaway faction. While peace negotiations were underway with the MILF, this faction felt that, “the government was giving them a shitty deal so they splintered off. Since they were a large formation of rebels the army did not want to operate without less than a company size, battalion size formations,” Dizon described. His men went into the jungle looking for the leader of the group with two intelligence specialists who carried electronic intercept gear. When they returned five days later, Dizon asked what happened.
“We walked for five days…went to all these places that the guy was pointing out and all the sites our signal people said he might be in, the signals guys with signal intercepts. On the fourth day we decided to go home,” one of the men told his commander.
“So what happened on your way home?”
“Well sir, on the way home we saw guys with weapons on the other mountain.”
“How far away?”
“Sir, lets say about a mile away.”
“Did you use the snipers?”
“We fired off five rounds. The signals guys said there was about five dead and forty wounded.”
“What where you using? .50 cal?”
“What were you using?”
The myth of the four Light Reaction Company snipers who went into the jungle for five days and handed the MILF faction their ass perpetuated throughout the ranks. The operators themselves probably just smiled and laughed when they heard the story recounted by others, most likely not telling them about how they had called in 105mm artillery on the enemy position.
Dizon’s Executive Officer (XO) in the LRB became the next commander of the unit. Danilo Pamonag first went through the unit’s six-month counter-terrorism course to learn the job. Having watched the unit’s creation as a staff officer in Philippine SOCOM prior to becoming its XO, he was well acquainted with the unit prior to taking command.
“When I was designated, I thought about how to improve the TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] and doctrine of the LRB. It is a new unit and needs to develop its doctrine. I was the battalion commander at the same time as going through the course. So the new personnel were my classmates. My legacy that I am proudest of is putting some doctrine and TTPs in the LRB. I trained with the boys and understood how to be a operator.”
One of his new policies was to institute a test mission as the final exam for trainees in the counter-terrorist course to go through as a part of their final exam. At one point, a high number of enemy sightings prompted a call to the LRR commander from the secretary of defense. “Zambales is a communist enclave, so we tested the snipers there. We put the snipers well ahead of us and stayed there for several days, finding ways to resupply them without being seen. What they have learned from the theories they put into practice and they learned more during the actual mission,” Pamonag described. After observing for several days, the snipers called in the assault force. “The enemy was caught flat footed sleeping!” Other test missions were to take places in Sulu. During such missions, there are no instructors, the students have apply what they learned in a combat setting which validates their tactics but also opens the doors for the students to suggest new ones.
As SOCOM commander, Pamonag is a big advocate for the Special Forces, Scout-Rangers, and LRR. He is especially passionate about how harmonizing the three units together allows SOCOM to leverage the power of three specialized and highly motivated units. When asked, he opens up about what he especially likes about the Light Reaction Regiment. “One thing I admire about the LRC over conventional forces, because I grew up in conventional forces, in the LRC you can go down to the lowest soldiers in the LRC and ask them what their role is and they will immediately tell you. The LRC knows exactly down to each person what their job is and what they are supposed to do. When anything happens, they know exactly what to do.”
The LRB operated in silence, hidden in the background away from the prying eyes of the public. Their operations were, and are, largely directed against the major terrorist groups that pose an internal security threat to the Philippines. Hunting down High Value Targets is one of the unit’s specialities and Ted Llamas referred to the unit’s activities as, “secret small stuff that has strategic importance.” The unit also trained with American, British, Australian, Malaysian, and Indonesian counter-terrorist units over the years. However, the unit’s greatest challenge was yet to come.
At certain points in history, covert and clandestine units are severely tested, their operational limitations pushed to the breaking point. The soldiers are forced to improvise and overcome. The units themselves are suddenly pushed into the spotlight in full public view for the first time. Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 and Operation Neptune Spear in 2011 did this for American Special Operations units. The Light Reaction Brigade came into public view during the 2013 Zamboanga siege. Approximately 500 rogue Moro National Liberation Front terrorists attempted to take over the city. In the past, units like the LRB had operated behind a cloak of secrecy, many of their missions taking place in remote jungle areas. In 2013, the public learned that they had a Special Operations capability.
With the LRB under the command of Colonel Ted Llamas, the enemy also learned about that Special Operations capability.
The complete story of the Zamboanga siege will have to be told elsewhere, but the end result was that the Light Reaction Battalion was again flagged for an upgrade. The Army now wanted an entire Light Reaction Regiment. This could pose major problems for the unit as it has almost always been understrength. When deployed to Zamboanga, the LRB was at only 40% strength.
“The knee jerk reaction was to bring the battalion from three companies to six companies, now they’re a regiment. My worry is that we may not be able to support the number of troops that they are bringing up,” Dizon said. “I think that four companies would be the limit, six is kind of stretching it.” The former LRB commander brought up one of the SOF truths: Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced.
The current SOCOM commander, General Danilo Pamonag, served as the commander the Light Reaction Battalion after Dizon and then served as the commander a second time when it became the Light Reaction Regiment. He spoke openly about the unit’s expansion, citing political pressure to enlarge the unit to respond to multiple crisis that could erupt across the island nation. “For me, frankly and candidly, six companies is too big. Why? Because we can not properly equip them. Otherwise it would be good. But equipping them is hard.” General Pamonag singled out issues with providing the men with sniper rifles, night vision devices, and body armor. “Now we have grown into six companies have an average of five to six sniper rifles,” Pamonag said. “It is so sad.”
Also there is the issue of filling the unit with qualified personnel as Ted Llamas experienced in Zamboanga years prior. His Light Reaction Battalion has to be augmented with about 45 SEALs from NAVSOG during the battle, and he was very thankful for the Navy’s contribution to the fight as his unit was so undermanned.
Coming in part four: a Trojan horse operation in bad guy land goes haywire
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