“Special Forces have expertise in developing the community, shaping the community, and winning the hearts and minds. Our Special Forces are like your Special Forces, what your Special Forces did in Afghanistan. There are small groups of Special Forces who go into the community and win their hearts, then the community helps you fight against the enemy,” General Danilo Pamonag told SOFREP. As the commander of Special Operations Command in the Philippines, he has an intimate knowledge of the training and operations of Special Forces, Scout-Rangers, and the Light Reaction Regiment, the three Army Special Operations units in the republic of the Philippines.
General Pamonag talked in-depth about the forces under his command, with an immense pride in his men and what they have accomplished. “Bohol for several years was effected very much by the communists but when we put one battalion of Special Forces there, they shaped Bohol and won the hearts of Bohol,” Pamonag said. “The enemy structure in Bohol was eliminated and then it became a tourist destination.” However, the Special Forces mission is long-term, complex, and often difficult to quantify with metrics. When asked how long it took to turn Bohol around, the General replied, “It took time, you have to win the hearts and gain their confidence, it took four or five years. It is not very easy.”
The concept of Special Forces in the Philippines began to take shape after the Philippine Army and Constabulary battled a domestic insurgency waged by the Huks in the 1950’s and 60’s. During this time, Americans from 1st Special Forces Group stationed in Okinawa, Japan deployed to the Philippines and began teaching US Special Forces tactics to their host-nation counterparts. At the same time, four Philippine Army officers attended the Special Forces Officer Course, Airborne course, and Psychological Operations course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. These men returned home and formed the basis thinking on unconventional warfare in the Philippine Army. One of these officers was Fidel Ramos who later became the President of the Philippines.
In 1962, General Order 446 issued by General Headquarters Armed Forces of the Philippines created the 1st Special Forces Company at Fort Magsaysay with the mission of training, organizing, equipping, and controlling para-military forces. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the Special Forces (organized along the same lines as US Special Forces in 12-man teams) conducted their mission. “We developed, trained, organized, and used the 54,000 para-military force to fight the MNLF,” Colonel Benjamin Samonte wrote. “After one year, 3,000 fully armed MNLF rebels surrendered. The most important thing was our success in weakening the MNLF’s hold on their mass base.”
Special Forces also conducted operations directed against the communist New People’s Army (NPA) including a major engagement on the island of Negros in which Captain Arturo Ortiz was awarded the Medal of Valor in 1990. However, Special Forces have also had their critics amongst Philippine security forces. There have been charges that many of the weapons that Special Forces have provided have ended up in the hands of rebel groups and that locally trained para-military forces end up doing the bidding of corrupt politicians.
During this time period there was also some fierce rivalry between Special Forces and Scout-Rangers. “We had the Rangers and the Special Forces as early as the 1950’s…but at the time there was no special operations SOCOM yet, but they were two distinct units, special units. At that time they competed with each other. Sometimes the competition is so hard that they want to prove that they are the best and they had a rift or a quarrel so in 1996 special operations command was created to harmonize these two units to make them treat each other as big brothers. It was successful. Before we were competitors but now we treat each other as brothers,” General Pamonag explained.
Colonel Mapili sits behind his desk as Special Operations Command at Fort Magsaysay wearing his digital jungle pattern military uniform and a blue Special Forces tab identical to the one worn by American Special Forces soldiers. Behind him is a whiteboard that lists enemy KIAs (Killed in Action) as well as some logistical information. Mapili currently serves as the G3 (operations) officer for SOCOM and has spent most of his career in Special Forces.
“I volunteered to join the Special Forces,” Mapili said immediately after he graduated the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). Before long, he found himself working as a Special Forces team leader in Mindinao during the early 1990’s when their main threat was the NPA. Mapili also commanded the Israeli trained 33rd Special Forces Company which was tasked with counter-terrorism, the precursor unit to today’s Light Reaction Regiment. In the United States, there is still some hard feelings amongst Special Forces veterans that the counter-terrorist mission was taken from Blue Light which was a part of 5th Special Forces Group and given to Delta Force, but those dynamics were not echoed by Mapili who was simply happy to help lay the foundations of his country’s counter-terrorism capability.
While Rangers specialize in jungle warfare, and the LRR specializes in counter-terrorism, “Special Forces is more about engaging the local populace, the guerrillas on the ground, use them as a force multiplier, and engage the enemy,” Mapili said, emphasizing that they also have airborne and riverine capability but that at their heart they are an unconventional warfare unit.
“I took up my Q-Course way back in 1998,” Mapili recalled, referring to the American Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg. “It was very fulfilling training…I used it when I came back here.” In the Philippines today there is a six-month long Special Forces Operations Course to qualify perspective soldiers and prior to that is a four-month Special Forces Combat Qualification Course which serves as a prelude to the regular course including the live test mission in a combat zone. For Special Forces, the test mission could be direct action against the enemy or training proxy forces on the ground. The operations course includes specialized training, planning, special skills, and so on. Once the students graduate, they are assigned to one of the six Special Forces battalions spread across Mindanao.
The unconventional warfare missions gets more interesting on the ground as there is another unit also has this mission, the Special Action Force (SAF) which belongs to the Philippine police force. “If both are units are on the ground we can be supporting each other it depends on the hierarchy and who is the main effort, who is the secondary effort, but we are always in support of Philippine National Police because we support law enforcement operations,” Mapili explained.
When Special Forces, or any other SOF unit, is deployed in the Philippines they fall under the local area commander. In the past, this has led to Special Forces being used as infantry rather than deployed in a manner consistent with their mission and training. “We want to advocate the correct employment, the correct utilization of Special Forces,” Mapili said. To help correct this problem, the military has created Joint Special Operations Group (JSOG) which serves as an advisor and consultant to the area commander on the most effective way to employ SOF units in the field.
“Once on the ground we build rapport by talking to all of the local stakeholders, especially local officials,” the Special Forces Colonel says when asked to describe a typical mission in Mindanao. Eventually, this turns into a mutually supporting effort between the locals and Special Forces. “If you do not engage the local stakeholders than you will have a hard time locating your enemy on the ground,” Mapili elaborated. One of the basic tasks of a Special Forces team once deployed, it to establish a local intelligence network. “It is the bread and butter of Special Forces,” Mapili said. While Special Forces can and does engage in Direct Action operations, they also have a Special Forces company that is equipped for humanitarian assistance and is deployed to Palawan.
The para-military elements that Special Forces trains are called CAFGU (Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit) who are, “local residents in the area that we train…there is a program that is being followed as far as training is concerned. There are also civilian volunteers that we train. During combat we don’t use civilian volunteers but we do use CAFGU. Currently we are training CAFGU in Sulu.” Colonel Mapili reported a positive relationship with CAFGU saying, “if you commit yourself to those people then they will give all of their support to you.”
As a unit tasked with sorting out internal security issues within their own country, Special Forces also has the advantage of recruiting into their ranks soldiers who are actually from their operational areas. “From civilians we recruit them to join the Army. We see to it that there are applicants who will be recruited from Mindanao,” Mapili says. “There are also Muslim Special Forces,” members he explains.
As Special Forces has evolved they also added a Military Free Fall capability, and not long after our interview concluded, two instructors from the Philippine MFF course parachuted onto the parade field for the retirement ceremony of the deputy SOCOM commander.
In 2015, Special Forces hit Abu Sayyaf targets in Basilan including overrunning an enemy base camp. A separate mission resulted in nineteen dead enemy including a foreign fighter named Mohammed Najib Bin Hussein. Over the course of 2016, Special Forces have continued to engage the various armed groups in the Philippines which includes revolutionary forces like the NPA and secessionist forces like Abu Sayyaf. Recently, groups claiming allegiance to ISIS have also emerged. In August of 2016, Special Forces raided a NPA camp in Valencia City, Bukidnon killing nine enemy and recovering a large cache of weapons and explosives.
However, Special Forces members understand that they are simply degrading the enemy to prevent them from gaining strength until a political solution can be found. “A military solution is not the perfect solution in the area so there should be an intervention from our politicians. A bullet is not the answer to winning the war,” Mapili said. When asked about the future of Special Forces, Mapili said that their first priority is maintaining internal security but that the future could see Special Forces protecting Philippine territory from external aggressors.
“The philippine national police and local populace will handle this [internal] problem and we will shift to territorial defense,” Mapili said.
“Do you see a time that you will be like American Special Forces and do you foresee Philippine ODA’s around south-east asia?” SOFREP asked the Special Forces Colonel.
“That is a good plan actually,” Mapili said with a smile. “That is the unconventional way of deploying our Special Forces.”